PARIS – When Lionel Messi was jeered by Paris Saint-Germain fans during last Sunday's home defeat to Lyon, their relationship looked like it had reached a breaking point.
Messi joined PSG on a two-year deal after leaving Barcelona against his will in 2021, with an option for an extra year if both parties agreed. But talks have reportedly broken down and Messi's departure this summer looks increasingly inevitable.
There were high hopes he could lead PSG to an elusive Champions League title, but instead the Qatari-backed club went out in the round of 16 in consecutive seasons.
He was among the players jeered last season after PSG was knocked out by Real Madrid, and although Messi's form was outstanding in the first half of this campaign, it dipped significantly after he led Argentina to the World Cup title in Qatar.
PSG coach Christophe Galtier defended Messi by saying it was others who should raise their game.
"You can’t expect Leo to do everything,” Galtier said after the Lyon game. “The boos are very harsh. He’s a player who gives a lot, who gave a lot in the first half of the season. But it’s also down to the others to surpass themselves.”
Since its array of stars returned from the World Cup, PSG has lost eight games overall in 2023.
Others have played far worse than Messi. Yet PSG fans seem to primarily blame the Argentina star for the alarming slump — perhaps perceiving that his previous good form was motivated purely by his quest to win the World Cup, which he did as the tournament's best player.
PSG fans are also unhappy that he rarely comes over to applaud them after games.
Messi has cut a distant figure since PSG was eliminated 3-0 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in the Champions League last month.
If the next nine French league games are to be Messi’s final appearances in a PSG shirt, here's a look at where the 35-year-old superstar could go next.
MESSI VS. RONALDO, AGAIN?
When Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid in 2018, it brought the curtain down on the most fascinating player rivalry in modern soccer history. After years of competing for supremacy with Messi at Barcelona, he moved to Juventus.
Ronaldo now plays in Saudi Arabia for Al Nassr in Riyadh and speculation has been growing that Messi could be heading to the Middle East as well to city rival Al Hilal — which is reportedly prepared to offer a record-breaking salary.
Messi played against Ronaldo in January for PSG in an exhibition game in Riyadh against a combined XI from Al Nassr and Al Hilal.
Ronaldo's arrival has already boosted Saudi's soccer profile and having Messi would do so even more as it prepares to stage the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time in December.
Barcelona coach Xavi played alongside Messi when the Spanish club ruled European soccer under heralded coach Pep Guardiola.
Xavi repeated this week that he would welcome Messi back to the club where he scored 672 goals — including an extraordinary 50-goal season in 2012 and a remarkable 133 overall across 2012 and 2013 — and where he won four Champions League trophies.
“It depends on many factors. We must see what the financial fair play rules allow us to do,” Xavi, the former midfield great, said. “But I think the most important factor will be Leo's desire to come back here. Leo knows this is his home and that our doors are open, and that we will be delighted if he decides to come back.”
In the 10th minute of Barca’s Copa del Rey match against Madrid on Wednesday, fans at the Camp Nou chanted the name of Messi, who wore the famed No. 10 shirt for Barca.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta is keen on bringing Messi back, but the Spanish league leaders are steeped in debt and facing investigation because of payments of millions of dollars to a company linked to a Spanish refereeing official.
When he was forced to leave Barcelona in 2021, Messi was linked with a move to Manchester City to reunite with his former mentor Guardiola.
But Guardiola already has a prolific scorer in Erling Haaland and playmaker Kevin De Bruyne as his chief creator, among a slew of other creative midfielders.
Messi earns 40 million euros ($43.6 million) per season with PSG and Abu-Dhabi backed City could afford to match it, especially for only one season. But Messi would be arriving in the highly-physical Premier League at the advanced age of 36.
The physical demands would be lower in the MLS, with Inter Miami a potential destination if Messi decides to follow the example of David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and play in the United States.
Beckham’s Inter Miami could not possibly match the Saudi salary offer but, according to British newspaper The Independent, one way around that would be to give Messi an equity stake in the franchise.
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