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Lionel Messi's move to Saudi Arabia 'a done deal'

Saudi source tells AFP 'contract is exceptional. It is huge', but name of the club yet to be known
In this file photo taken on 22 November 2022, Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal which was disallowed for an offside during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha. Argentine superstar Lionel Messi will play in Saudi Arabia next season under a "huge" deal, a source with knowledge of the negotiations told AFP on May 9, 2023 (AFP)
Argentine superstar Lionel Messi will play in Saudi Arabia next season under a "huge" deal, a source with knowledge of the negotiations told AFP on May 9, 2023 (AFP)

Paris Saint-Germain star Lionel Messi will play in Saudi Arabia next season, a Saudi source familiar with the negotiations told AFP on Tuesday, describing the contract as "enormous".

The departure of the Argentine world champion for the Gulf kingdom is "a done deal. He will play in Saudi Arabia", said the source on condition of anonymity.

"The contract is exceptional. It is huge. We are still finalising a few details," the source added, without revealing the name of the club concerned.

Asked for comment by AFP, PSG only said that Messi's contract is valid until 30 June.

"If the club had wanted to renew his contract, it would have been done sooner," a source at the Qatari-owned Parisian club said. According to this second source, the Argentinian will honour his existing contract with PSG as planned and no official communication from the club is to be expected.

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Last week, French media outlets reported that Messi may be suspended by PSG after the 35-year-old travelled to Saudi Arabia to fulfil commitments for a commercial contract promoting tourism in the kingdom without the club’s permission.

Messi's transfer will follow that of the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo, who since January has played for Riyadh-based club Al-Nassr.

There have been several unconfirmed reports in recent days claiming the existence of an offer to Messi from Al-Nassr's rival club Al-Hilal, valued at 400 million euros ($437m) per year.

Meanwhile, sources told the Saudi newspaper Okaz on Tuesday that Al-Hilal is close to signing a deal with Luis Enrique, the former coach of Barcelona and current coach of the Spanish national team, to lead the team.

Messi and Ronaldo have a historic rivalry and are known as the two greatest players of their generation, however both are in their late 30s and therefore in the twilight years of their playing careers.

"The negotiations did not take as long as with Ronaldo," said the Saudi source, adding that as with the latter, the financial package came from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund (PIF).

The Portuguese striker's sensational contract in Saudi Arabia, estimated at 400 million euros until June 2025, made him the highest-paid sportsman in the world in 2023, according to Forbes' annual ranking.

'End of career' player

Messi, who will turn 36 in June, "is a player at the end of his career, and he will not be there just for football. He will be there to contribute to the attractiveness of the kingdom," the Saudi source said, emphasising the country's ambition to attract other "great players" as well as young people "with a promising future".

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In February, an official familiar with the matter told AFP that Saudi Arabia was also seeking to forge partnerships with Messi to support its candidacy for the organisation of a World Cup.

A joint candidacy with Egypt and Greece for the 2030 World Cup has been discussed for several months, but has not been formalised.

The oil-rich monarchy, like other Gulf countries, relies in part on sport to diversify its economy and change its image as an ultra-conservative kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, which notably hosts Formula 1 and finances the breakaway LIV golf circuit, is accused by human rights organisations of "sportwashing", a process which allows a country to improve its reputation by sports.

The country is due to host in the coming years the Asian football championship, the Asian Games, and even the Asian Winter Games on artificial snow.

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