There is no shortage of people wanting Lionel Messi to feel at home in Paris. Once Messi confirmed he was in advanced talks to join Paris Saint-Germain, some of the club’s supporters made their way to the city’s Le Bourget Airport on the off chance of catching a glimpse of his arrival. Those there on Sunday evening were disappointed when he did not fly in. Many more returned on Monday.
Messi knows a move to PSG guarantees a warm dressing-room welcome. He has long-term friends there, notably Neymar. The star of Argentina and the star of Brazil used to form a happy, fruitful partnership at Barcelona — the club Messi has departed after 21 years — and Messi made no secret of his desire for Neymar to reverse his decision to leave Camp Nou for Paris, for a world-record €220 million, in 2017.
The pair met up on holiday in Ibiza earlier this month, where PSG’s Angel Di Maria and Leandro Paredes, both international teammates of Messi, were also on holiday, along with Italian midfielder Marco Verratti. They posed with Messi for a photograph together, and although the 34-year-old then thought he would be signing a new deal with Barcelona, the PSG players revealed Messi, “asked to come and join”.
It was a light-hearted plea. As of last Thursday, with Barcelona abruptly declaring it “financially impossible” to re-sign Messi, PSG’s executives made it serious, initiating talks and offering a €30m-a-year contract for the next two seasons.
In the decade since ambitious, big-spending PSG came under Qatari ownership, accumulating superstars has been a trademark, from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to David Beckham to the double swoop, in one window, for Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. This summer is already a glitzy transfer period in Paris, with Sergio Ramos recruited after being released by Real Madrid, while Italy goalkeeper Gigio Donnarumma, Player of the Tournament at Euro 2020, was also snapped up on a free transfer.
Messi trumps any of those, with his six Ballon D’Or titles, and his legitimate claim to be the greatest footballer not only of the 21st century but perhaps any era. News of his possible arrival excites PSG’s marketing department, and French football in general, as a boost to Ligue 1’s prestige.
Messi-Neymar-Mbappe is a front trio any club, in any league, would envy. Already working out what formation might suit them best is a manager, Mauricio Pochettino, who has plenty in common with Messi. They are compatriots, born barely 50 kilometres apart, Messi in Rosario, Pochettino just to the city’s south-west. The childhood club of both was Newell’s Old Boys.
But there are challenges ahead for Messi and any manager who takes on a player so used to Barcelona’s ways. He might also be 34-years-old, but, as he said at his tearful farewell to Barca on Sunday: “I haven’t had major injuries. We’ll see how far I can go in terms of my body, but, as Barcelona fans know, I am ambitious.”
A footballer in his mid-30s still needs careful husbandry. A player in a new league, however exceptional, must establish new bearings. Neymar has frequently complained about the vigorous marking and fouling he is subjected to in Ligue 1. A dank winter fixture at, say, Lens, feels quite unlike the mellow climate under which Messi has played most of his football in Spain.
Then there’s the question of how best to deploy him. In the PSG scenario, would it be as a ‘false nine’ in between Neymar and Mbappe? Or as a liberated attacking midfielder, behind a front trio that includes the incisive Di Maria, and in front of Verratti and new signing Gini Wijnaldum? Among the calculations Messi’s next coach must make is how to develop a sufficient attacking press without asking Messi to sacrifice too much energy chasing and sprinting off the ball.
These are de luxe dilemmas for any coach. They come with detailed scrutiny. Perhaps even more for someone like PSG’s Pochettino, who was not quite ingenious enough to win the French title last season, although, in his defence, when he took over from Thomas Tuchel in January PSG were third in the table. They finished just behind Lille and for only the second time since 2013, were not France’s champions.
With Messi on board, PSG would be expected to sweep up the domestic trophies and at least match the club’s 2020 milestone, a Champions League final. The best player in the world will be aiming for better than that, and to lead his next employer to a European Cup triumph.