Lionel Messi in talks for a £320m a year move to Saudi Arabia

Lionel Messi and his wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, in Saudi Arabia - AFP

The Saudi Arabian government is preparing the most lucrative salary deal in football history to bring Lionel Messi to its Saudi Pro League this summer, Telegraph Sport has learned.

Negotiations are underway with Messi’s representatives, led by his father Jorge, for when the player will become a free agent at the end of June when his contract with Paris Saint-Germain expires. There are discussions that the whole package could be worth $400m a year (£320m) which would also exceed the £165m Cristiano Ronaldo is paid each year to play in Saudi Arabia until the summer of 2025.

The conventional process for signing the world’s best talent, such as with Ronaldo in December, was for the deal to involve the state before the final destination club was decided.

The Saudi government has recruited former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook, who headed the club when the Abu Dhabi takeover was completed in 2008, to a similar position in the Saudi Pro League. It is expected that he will be involved in any discussions to secure the signing of Messi.

A contract offer from PSG to extend Messi’s stay in the French capital for another 12 months has been on the table since January, but there are now no expectations that he will be signed.

Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr, who are currently runners-up in the league behind leaders Al-Ittihad. Al-Nassr’s traditional rivals are Al-Hilal and placing Messi with that club, historically the nation’s most successful, would recreate the rivalry the pair had for nine years with Real Madrid and Barcelona. Al-Hilal won the equivalent of the Asian Champions League in 2021, their fourth title in that competition.

Paris Saint-Germain's Argentine forward Lionel Messi (L) outruns Riyadh All-Star Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo - AFP/Franck Fife

Paris Saint-Germain’s Argentine forward Lionel Messi (L) outruns Riyadh All-Star Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo – AFP/Franck Fife

The Messi project, combined with Ronaldo’s impact so far in Saudi Arabia, considered a success by the Saudi authorities, should secure the country’s status as the ultimate clubbing destination for the world’s biggest names. The game’s development was accelerated by Saudi ruler Mohammed bin Salman as part of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan to place sport at the center of the country’s modernization plan.

Messi is already the highest-profile ‘ambassador’ for the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA), with another major publicity push this week coming at the cost of upsetting PSG. The club fined its star player two weeks’ wages and suspended him for the same period for traveling to Saudi Arabia this week without permission to honor his commitments under his STA contract.

PSG’s decision to discipline Messi after the 3-1 defeat at Lorient was not taken lightly. The player’s requests to visit Saudi Arabia were rejected, so when he flew to Riyadh on his private jet it was treated as a breach of his contract. When Messi didn’t show up for training on Monday, PSG wanted to take a stand even if they didn’t make any official statements on the matter to avoid further inflaming the situation.

Messi playing for PSG - Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Messi playing for PSG – Reuters/Christian Hartmann

The underlying tensions between Qatar’s ownership of PSG, via the Qatar Sports Investments vehicle, and its larger Gulf neighbor Saudi Arabia are naturally read in any major game in world football. During last year’s World Cup finals in Qatar, Messi was featured prominently in STA ads that aired every commercial break on Qatari broadcaster beIN Sports.

The 16-club Saudi Pro League takes place in the same cycle from August to May as the European competitions. Saudi ministers are delighted with the impact Ronaldo’s signing has had on its population. Attendance for the Saudi Pro League has nearly doubled year-on-year and conversations about the league on social media among women and girls since its arrival have increased by 237%, according to official data seen by Telegraph Sport.

The 1,000-word press release sent to media on Wednesday to accompany the Messi family’s trip to Saudi Arabia underlined how important the world’s greatest footballer is to the rebranding of the kingdom, which is a contender to host the World Cup finals in 2030.

He not only detailed the Saudi tourist itinerary of the man himself – “he was mesmerized by his encounter with a white falcon that perched on his arm” – but also that of his wife Antonella Roccuzzo. She was described as having worn a traditional Saudi hama, “a decorative headdress historically worn by women from the Najdi region of the kingdom”.

The Messi family brand is now a powerful building block in the global reputation of the player himself, at 35 still capable of being the decisive player in Argentina’s World Cup triumph in Doha.

His connections with Saudi Arabia are well established. Messi played for Barcelona in Jeddah in January 2020 in the Spanish Super Cup, a three-year deal worth £102m for the Spanish football federation. In November 2019, Riyadh hosted a friendly match between Argentina and Brazil when Messi met with Turki Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the country’s “general entertainment authority”.

The Kingdom has become a major destination for some of boxing’s biggest matches, including Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Andy Ruiz Jnr at Diriyah, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites Messi visited this week. The nation’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), spearheaded the consortium that acquired Newcastle United.

The Saudi government declined to comment. Representatives from Leo Messi’s management also declined to comment.

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