Paris Saint-Germain will suspend Lionel Messi for two weeks after the Argentine superstar skipped training to travel to Saudi Arabia, and won't extend the Argentine superstar's contract beyond this season, according to multiple reports Tuesday.
The punishment, and Messi's unauthorized trip to the Gulf one day after a dispiriting 3-1 loss to Lorient, come with speculation swirling around his future, one month before he is set to become one of the most high-profile free agents in sports history.
On Monday, the first day of the last month of his PSG contract, Messi reportedly flew to Saudi Arabia to fulfill obligations related to his sponsorship contract with the petrostate. According to reports, he'd previously asked for permission to do so, but PSG's sporting director and manager — who had promised all players two days off if they beat Lorient on Sunday — only granted conditional permission if PSG won or drew Sunday's game.
Instead, with Messi starting and playing 90 minutes, PSG lost, leaving its lead atop Ligue 1 at 5 points with five games to go. The following day, the entire squad trained — but without Messi, who'd gone to Saudi Arabia, which pays him gobs of money as a tourism ambassador (and which maintains a frosty relationship with Qatar, the neighboring Gulf nation that owns PSG).
ESPN reported that his Monday absence created tension within the locker room. In other circumstances, perhaps it might've been excused — perhaps Messi, the greatest player ever, would have been afforded special status and treatment — but PSG officials reacted swiftly. According to reports, they decided that Messi won't play or even train for two weeks, and won't be paid. (The club confirmed Tuesday that they would "discipline" Messi.)
In doing so, rather than taking a soft stance to woo Messi back to Paris for another season, they all but acknowledged that he'll likely be leaving as a free agent this summer. French newspaper L'Equipe confirmed that the club won't be extending his contract. The looming end of it has fueled months of rumors and questions regarding where Messi might play next season; the answer now appears to be "elsewhere."
Where will Messi play next?
Messi, for over a year now, has been strongly linked with Major League Soccer's Inter Miami. There have been romantic suggestions that he could return to Argentina. More recently, there have been reports that Barcelona, where he played for two decades beginning at age 13, could tempt him back to Spain. There have also been reports of record-breaking offers from Saudi clubs.
But Barca is mired in a financial crisis, and would have to conjure accounting magic to fit Messi's wages on its books.
Saudi Arabia can offer a nine-figure salary, but can't offer him a viable level of competition and global relevance.
Only two Argentine clubs, Boca Juniors and River Plate, have the infrastructure and resources to realistically offer him anything but a daily circus, given his fame — and Messi likely wouldn't want to pick a side of the rivalry that divides Buenos Aires.
The scenes in Argentina outside a restaurant where Messi was having dinner at 🇦🇷
— All About Argentina 🛎🇦🇷 (@AlbicelesteTalk) March 21, 2023
And then there is Miami, a glamorous destination in a massive market and a growing league, whose commissioner has indicated a willingness to be creative, and perhaps even bend MLS' rules, to pay Messi what he is worth.
“You’re dealing with perhaps the most special player in the history of the game,” Don Garber told The Athletic in March. “So when there are rumors of him connected to Miami, that’s great. And if it could happen, it would be terrific for MLS, it would be terrific for Messi and his family, and like everything with us, we try to run every opportunity down.
"Teams have the flexibility to do unique things," he continued. "MLS is a single entity. If you’re selling something that the collective owns, the collective has to approve that. So whatever (Inter Miami owner) Jorge (Mas) decides, with (MLS executive vice president) Todd (Durbin’s) help to structure something, if we have the opportunity to do that, it’s going to be outside the box. ... We’re gonna have to structure a deal that’s going to compensate him in ways that he and his family expect."
There could be other, as-yet-unnamed suitors circling. There is no perfect option, just as there wasn't when Barca's financial problems led Messi to PSG in 2021 — which is why he initially seemed set to stay for another season. Fabrizio Romano reported back in December and January that Messi and PSG had a "verbal pact" to extend his deal beyond June 2023.
But talks with PSG have since reportedly broken down. Of the many imperfect options, Paris now appears to be off the table. Messi's stay in the French capital will likely end unceremoniously. And a new chapter in the career of soccer's greatest-ever player will begin.