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PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Lionel Messi: How Close is He to Leaving Barcelona?

If the Argentinian legend finally departs, it would set up one of the wildest (and most expensive) free agent sagas of all time.

Could we be witnessing the most financially impactful and influential free agency sweepstakes in the history of sports?

If you thought LeBron James’ The Decision was huge, imagine someone like Lionel Messi taking his pick of literally any team around the world and realistically earning $200 million.

Per season.

Messi, who turns 34 later this month, is one of the most dominant soccer players and highly-decorated athletes of all time. He has scored more than 700 career goals combined for FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team, and earned a record six Ballon D’Or awards as the sport’s top male player.

But the relationship between Messi and Barcelona, where he’s played since the age of 13, grew painfully strained last summer. That left the superstar considering his options… and forcing fans of the Blaugrana to consider a worst-case scenario: life without Leo.

Last August, with Barcelona in turmoil on and off the pitch, Messi expressed his desire to leave the club immediately on a free transfer following the delayed 2019-20 season, specifically noting his dissatisfaction with club president Josep Bartomeu. But the club and La Liga insisted that Messi either had to honor the final year of his contract or pay his release clause — a Dr. Evil-level  $826 million buyout — because he hadn’t triggered an opt-out before a set deadline of May 31.

The off-field drama lessened when Bartomeu resigned in October, and Messi played out the final year of his deal. It was another disappointing season for Barça, however; they won Spain’s Copa del Rey, but finished a disappointing third in La Liga behind Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid and were convincingly knocked out by Paris Saint Germain in the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16.

And in the midst of it all, Barcelona announced its leading role in proposing the instantly doomed European Super League. In the wake of the debacle, the club is at risk of facing potentially heavy UEFA sanctions going forward.

The idea that Messi would stick around Spain only to be banned from Champions League soccer just doesn’t feel likely.

Nevertheless, the latest buzz suggests that contract negotiations are ongoing at Camp Nou with guarded optimism.

Messi was once again sensational for Barcelona in 2020-21, scoring 38 goals in all competitions across 47 matches, breaking Pelé’s all-time record for most career goals scored with one club. In February, it was leaked that Messi was being paid an astronomical $672 million over his four-year contract, including a $139 million “renewal fee” signing bonus and a $94 million loyalty bonus. Forbes named him the highest-earning soccer player in the world last September, and just the second after Cristiano Ronaldo to surpass $1 billion in career earnings.

But with Messi set to enter unrestricted free agency if no contract is signed by June 30, how much could that loyalty cost going forward? And at long last, how aggressively is he truly exploring leaving the only club he’s ever known?

Naturally, Barça is scrambling to keep Messi in-house with a trio of exciting additions that includes legendary forward (and Argentina teammate) Sergio Aguero and defender Eric Garcia via Manchester City and top-class midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum from Liverpool. Memphis Depay is also expected to join from Lyon.

But there’s no guarantee that these arrivals will be enough to keep the legend at the Nou Camp.

Notably, all three of those signings are coming for free — that is, no transfer fee is required — as Barcelona looks to cut spending after its debts during the pandemic exploded to a reported €1.2 billion ($1.46 billion). This would surely mean a potentially lower-than-usual salary for Messi if he decides to stay.

If the icon does opt to leave, the top suitors would be Manchester City, where he could reunite with former Barça manager Pep Guardiola and chase for City’s first Champions League title, or Paris Saint-Germain, where Messi could rejoin former club teammate and current scandal-laden forward Neymar. Notably, both of those clubs can offer something Barcelona cannot: zero risk of financial troubles; as they’re both backed by sovereign wealth funds in the Persian Gulf region.

If Messi wants a contract that pays close to $200 million per season, Man City and PSG would make for surer bets than Barça, who are offering $293 million over four years, per a recent report. But will the new signings and the unparalleled status he’s built up with the club and their fans be enough to convince him to stay yet again?

No less than the balance of power in European soccer could be at stake, as no free agency in the history of sports has ever had so much money, influence, and sheer emotion behind it.