Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi's complex choice around his most logical next destination
Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi's complex choice around his most logical next destination

Updated Apr. 6, 2023 3:15 p.m. ET

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo haven't always liked each other very much — although they seem to get along better these days. But just as they have been drawn together like magnets for most of their careers, so it could possibly be for one final closing act.

For all the options Messi has before him as he considers how to spend his last few seasons as a pro soccer player, the one leading the pack and making the most current sense is the choice that would bring him to Saudi Arabia, in his old rival Ronaldo's new home.

It is a move the soccer purists wouldn't love, much as they didn't particularly appreciate Ronaldo's switch to Al-Nassr of the Saudi Pro League after the World Cup at the end of last year.

But despite the optics and the skepticism and the general thought of "he wouldn't go there, would he?" it is the option that is currently most likely to entice Messi and to be the most seamless.


As Saudi Arabia tries to build itself up as a global tourist destination and a soccer force capable of hosting a future World Cup, money is not an issue. Elsewhere, even at some of Europe's richest and most prestigious clubs, cash is also in bountiful supply, but the usage of it gets a little more internally political.

The Saudi proposal would station Messi at Al-Hilal, the four-time winner of Asia's AFC Champions League and the archrival of Ronaldo's Al-Nassr. It is difficult for leagues with a traditionally low international profile to gain much traction. Having the two best players of the past 15 years (and two of the best ever) square off as dueling figureheads will help it get noticed.

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Much like the role David Beckham played in elevating the profile of Major League Soccer, the longer-term hope is the arrival of Messi and Ronaldo would encourage more stars to join, to bring up the overall standard over time.

For Al-Hilal it is the simple matter — if the eye-popping amount of $438 million can be regarded as simple — of making him an offer.

At top European clubs, it gets a bit thornier. Even bringing in a player of Messi's stature doesn't always lead to harmony. At his current club Paris Saint-Germain, where a two-year deal will expire in the summer, he has found himself booed by his own fans on occasion, most recently during a defeat to Lyon.

There is some kind of feeling among the Parisians that Messi poured so much effort and energy into helping Argentina win the World Cup in Qatar that there was not much left, either in terms of stamina or motivation, when he returned to the comparatively mundane day-to-day of club action.

The other options that either have or might arise are not especially ideal. A stay at PSG seems out of the equation, with the relationship on rocky ground, and Messi reportedly keen to move from France.

The most romantic destination for him would be a return to Barcelona, the club he joined as a 12-year-old after moving from his homeland, and where he played the most brilliant soccer of his career for more than two decades.

Yet Barca is mired in financial chaos, which is part of why he left in the first place, and would have to perform a juggling act of epic proportions to squeeze within the mandated financial fair play regulations were they to negotiate a return.

Barca's crowd chanted Messi's name at a game Wednesday, but it is more likely that the implied promise of bringing him "home" would be used as a campaigning carrot in the Barca presidential elections, rather than an actual outcome.

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Teams such as Manchester City, where Messi's friend and former teammate Pep Guardiola is coach, have been mooted without much enthusiasm. Realistically, if Messi was going to go to play in England he would have done it far earlier in his career.

Major League Soccer — Beckham's Inter Miami has made no secret of how much they would love to acquire Messi — would be a winner on lifestyle grounds but would get blown out of the water by the Saudi deal in the financial stakes.

The Saudis mean business. Accusations of sportswashing aren't slowing, but Al-Hilal can offer a monetary package that dwarfs everything else, and the fact Saudi Arabia already has a relationship with Messi, having paid him heavily as an ambassador for Saudi tourism for the past couple of years, is significant.

As a fan, it might not necessarily be the path you'd choose for him, but soccer is a financially-driven and clinical world at its elite level. Money talks. That much of it, several times more than would be forthcoming elsewhere, is deafening.

With Ronaldo already there, a rekindling of the rivalry might offer just one more excuse.

As things develop with Messi, the easiest way to follow along is to try to read between the lines. Revelations and denials should be taken in context. A day or two after a mid-World Cup report revealed Ronaldo had agreed terms with Al-Nassr, the article was rubbished as nonsense by Ronaldo's camp.

It wasn't nonsense at all, they just weren't quite ready for it to become public knowledge yet. The response from Messi's people to reports about him and Al-Hilal? A denial.

A mystery? Maybe, but one that is pointing firmly in the direction of the Middle East.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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