One of the stories of the summer exploded on Thursday evening with it becoming clear that Barcelona’s attempts to secure Lionel Messi to a contract extension had ultimately failed, leaving the Argentine with a choice of where he will play his football in the 2021/22 season and beyond.
Initial optimism from the Joan Laporta camp, who ran their entire election campaign on keeping Messi at the club, has now turned to abject disappointment after a lunch-meeting on Thursday with Messi’s representatives made clear he was not going to stay.
Just why this decision has been reached now is something that will come out in the wash over the coming hours, but attention will immediately turn to Messi’s next move, which will be perhaps the biggest free signing since the Bosman rule was introduced.
What are his options?
Football is a funny business, clubs can claim severe financial issues following the COVID-19 pandemic, but just watch how many ears prick up now it’s clear that arguably the greatest footballer to ever play the game is on the market.
The number of clubs that can realistically sign Messi is small, common-sense dictates that, but the player will have his choice of a collection of prime clubs.
Paris Saint-Germain – The Favourite
This move immediately becomes the most likely as the Parisian club looks desperate to try and win a Champions League title.
With Messi an attainable target, the future of Kylian Mbappe all of a sudden becomes less of a pressing issue this summer, and it may even convince Nasser Al-Khelaifi to sell the Frenchman to Real Madrid to help offset the cost of Messi’s salary.
For the player himself, this is the perfect scenario. A team that is built to win the Champions League right now, where he will earn perhaps his highest ever salary as a professional and he will be once again able to live and play alongside Neymar, one of his closest friends.
The lifestyle in Paris is easy, even if the quality of league may not be inspiring, but this could allow Messi more rest periods after years of carrying an ailing Barcelona.
Manchester City – The Reunification
Manchester City have agreed a deal worth 118 million euros to sign Jack Grealish from Aston Villa, but they will now certainly look at the viability of signing Lionel Messi too, especially if they can find buyers for Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez.
Messi would see this move as a potentially interesting way to bring a degree of closure to his career in Europe, realigning with Pep Guardiola and having another crack at winning the Champions League, although the physicality of the league could be problematic.
He would also be guaranteed a league title too, with Manchester City having far and away the best squad in England for the moment.
Guardiola has never won the Champions League as a coach without Messi and may wish to try and finally get over the line with his star-pupil back by his side. It would also signify the completion of the project set out by Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain when they arrived at the club.
Manchester United – The Challenge
Manchester United’s current transfer policy doesn’t include moves for a player like Lionel Messi, on a free transfer or not, but the club are one of the very few who could afford to pay him and that must make them a realistic destination.
It’s difficult to pick out any benefits for a player of 34 joining United over City right now, because the Reds won’t be ready to challenge for a Premier League crown until 2023, but if he fancies a unique challenge, returning United to the top of English football after the devastating post-Sir Alex Ferguson years would be right up there.
Having been the scourge of United in two Champions League finals, fans know exactly how talented Messi is and what a gamechanger he remains, but the maths on this deal is increasingly hard to do, especially after United signed Jadon Sancho and have thus far failed to get deadwood like Jesse Lingard out of the club.
Juventus – The Tune Squad
Rarely in real life do we get to see crossovers like Hollywood movies often do. The internet has been split for years on being either team Cristiano Ronaldo or team Lionel Messi, but just what would happen if the pair joined forces at Juventus?
Obviously, the fiscal situation at Juventus makes this conversation almost a non-starter, but it can’t be ruled out of hand.
Ronaldo and Messi have been rivals for the entirety of their respective careers, often battling each other for Champions League trophies and Ballon d’Or hauls.
There would, then, be a degree of poetry about the pair finally joining forces and building a super team at Juventus, just like LeBron James’ Tune Squad, although this practice tends to work far better in the NBA than European football.
Either way, there is a morbid curiosity which comes with Messi and Ronaldo being teammates. Nobody is really sure they want it to happen, but everyone wants to see it, just to know what it would be like. You never know, Messi himself may have the same feeling.