The moment the private jet carrying Lionel Messi to a lucrative sponsorship engagement in Saudi Arabia taxied onto a French runway early this week, his career at Paris St.-Germain was effectively over.
The suspension would come a day later. The official parting won’t happen until his contract expires in a few weeks. The blame game may go on for months.
But by Wednesday there was no doubt on the main points: Messi will never play for P.S.G. again, and both the player and the club are just fine with that.
The ending will not have come as a surprise to either side. Theirs had always been a business relationship, one lacking the emotional weight of Messi’s previous tenure at Barcelona. And while there had been talks about renewing the forward’s contract in the weeks and months after Messi led Argentina to the World Cup title in December in Qatar, neither side appeared committed to consummating a deal.
But by skipping a practice on Monday, a day after fans in Paris had jeered the league leaders for a home loss to Lorient, a middling team that P.S.G.’s stacked roster was expected to swat aside, any idea of a renewal extinguished.
Mondays are traditionally a day off for P.S.G.’s players after a victory. When they lose, however, the players are expected to train.
By Monday afternoon, though, Messi and his family were already being photographed in Saudi Arabia, fulfilling a part of the player’s multiyear contract to promote the Gulf kingdom’s tourism authority. In Paris, club officials were formulating their furious response to their star’s unapproved absence.
By Tuesday evening, word started to spread that P.S.G. would not indulge Messi. Officially, the club has been tight-lipped. But the penalties meted out to Messi were quickly leaked: He had been suspended from practice and games for two weeks, during which time he would not receive a cent of his gargantuan salary, reported to be close to $800,000 a week. Privately, a club official said it was unlikely Messi would ever wear the club’s colors again.
Like P.S.G., Messi and his representatives remained publicly silent as speculation grew that their relationship was falling apart behind the scenes. Messi’s camp has, though, briefed a variety of media personalities on his side of the story. Messi was under the impression that he had the club’s permission to carry out his commercial endeavor, those reports said this week. Messi had decided a month ago, one reported, that he would not stay in Paris for a third season. He had even transmitted that decision to the club, the reports said.
The club, meanwhile, was doing the same. The immediate concern, it seemed, was not to repair the relationship but to control the narrative. But focusing on the specifics ignored the obvious: This week’s denouement represents the nadir in Messi’s transactional relationship not only with P.S.G. but perhaps also with the state of Qatar. The former had heralded his arrival in Paris less than two years ago — a soft landing after Messi’s budget-driven, tear-filled exit from Barcelona — as a triumph. The latter has gone to great lengths ever since to associate itself with Messi’s genius.
The marriage of convenience could not have gone better for player, club and country. Messi signed one of the richest contracts in sports. Qatar-owned P.S.G. added another world-class name in its to-date-fruitless search for a Champions League title. Qatar the nation, meanwhile, added a headliner before the biggest event in the country’s history, the 2022 World Cup, and then watched Messi play a starring role in a tournament that ended with his being draped in a bisht — a traditional ceremonial cloak — by Qatar’s emir and then paraded through the streets of Lusail like a trophy.
Figures close to P.S.G. expressed surprise on Wednesday with the characterization of Messi’s exit being presented on his behalf. They said it was the club that had gone slow on the idea of a contract renewal, as part of a plan to refashion the club away from its addiction to superstars like Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé and toward one that is more reliant on homegrown talent. Messi’s camp, they insisted, had even put a number on what it would take him to stay, proposing a salary increase that was far beyond anything the club had tentatively offered in January. By then, though, it may have been too late.
Storm clouds had started to gather almost as soon as Messi returned from Qatar as a world champion. P.S.G.’s form started to dip as the league season resumed in the new year, and its once-unassailable lead in the league started to shrink. The team was dumped out of the French Cup and — most frustratingly for its Qatari owners and its Parisian fans — from the Champions League, too.
All the while, the jeers and whistles of the P.S.G. ultras grew louder, and the angriest voices increasingly started to focus on Messi, whose form and output — perhaps as expected for a 35-year-old coming off an exhausting World Cup — dipped below his customary brilliance.
Messi watchers, part of a cottage industry attached to the player’s stardom as much as his soccer prowess, have in recent weeks speculated about where he might land next season. A return to Barcelona, perhaps? An American adventure in Miami? An extended stay in Saudi Arabia? All are surely on the table now.
As Messi poses for photos with his family in Riyadh, one thing is crystal clear: His future will not be in Paris.
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