Last Sunday, by the time Lionel Messi set foot on a private jet that would take him to Saudi Arabia and a lucrative sponsorship deal, his career at Paris Saint-Germain was well and truly over.
The suspension fell a day later. The separation will be official at the end of his contract, in three weeks. The reproaches will last for months.
This ending came as no surprise to either party. The Messi-PSG union has always been a business relationship, a marriage of convenience without the almost fusional charge of Messi’s previous term in Barcelona. While there was talk of renewing the striker’s contract following Argentina’s December World Cup victory in Qatar, neither PSG nor Messi’s side seemed willing to commit.
By missing Monday’s training, Messi erased any possibility of staying in Paris.
At PSG, Monday is a rest day after a victory. In case of defeat, the players must train. But last Sunday, PSG lost at home to Lorient, an average side that PSG’s richly paid stars were meant to crush; Messi was booed and whistled.
And on Monday afternoon, Messi and his family were already having their pictures taken in Saudi Arabia, under the multi-year deal to promote tourism in the Gulf kingdom. In Paris, club leaders were preparing their response to the unauthorized absence of their star.
Tuesday evening, the rumor started: no free pass for Messi. Officially, the club has said nothing. But the punishment soon leaked to the media: Messi was suspended from training and games for two weeks, during which he will not receive a penny of his gargantuan salary valued at US$800,000 a week. Privately, a club official said Messi would probably never wear the PSG shirt again.
Neither PSG nor Messi’s camp have made a public statement. On Messi’s side, however, the media were informed of his version of events: Messi felt like he had permission from the club to travel to Saudi Arabia to carry out his commercial project. The media reported that the Argentine star decided a month ago that he would not stay in Paris for a third season and that he even informed the club of his decision.
But by focusing on the details, both sides avoided naming the obvious: the events of the week are the lowest point in Messi’s transactional relationship, not only with PSG, but possibly with Qatar, the Persian Gulf emirate which owns the prestigious Parisian team.
Less than two years ago, PSG announced Messi’s arrival in Paris as a triumph. Since then, Qatar has done everything it can to partner with the genius of this great soccer player.
This marriage of convenience was ideal for Messi, PSG and Qatar. Messi has signed one of the highest paying contracts in professional sport. Qatar-owned PSG have added a new world star to their squad. Meanwhile, Qatar got positive headlines ahead of the 2022 World Cup, in which Messi played a starring role. Hero of champion Argentina, Messi celebrated by having a bisht – a traditional ceremonial cape – placed on his shoulders by the Emir of Qatar, who then paraded the international star through the streets of the capital like a trophy.
On Wednesday, sources close to PSG expressed surprise at the way Messi’s departure was presented by those around him. According to them, it was PSG last winter who slowed down contract renewal talks: the team reportedly has a reconstruction plan that relies less on superstars like Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé , and more on local talent.
In fact, dark clouds began to form over Parc des Princes, PSG’s home stadium, as soon as Messi returned from Qatar with the world championship title. PSG’s game deteriorated as soon as the season resumed, and its lead at the top of the championship began to melt. The team was knocked out of the Coupe de France and, most frustratingly for its Qatari owners and Parisian supporters, the Champions League.
Meanwhile, boos and whistles have become commonplace at home games, their target most often being Messi, whose form and performance – as you would expect from a 35-year-old at the after a grueling World Cup – were less vibrant than usual.
The planet Messi, obsessed with the player’s stardom as much as his footballing prowess, has been speculating for some weeks now where he will land next season. A return to Barcelona, perhaps? An American adventure in Miami? An extended stay in Saudi Arabia? All of these possibilities are on the table.
One thing is certain: he will not be in Paris.