“I hope Lionel Messi will be applauded by our fans,” said Christophe Galtier, manager of Paris Saint-Germain. He then supplied a long list of reasons why Messi ought to receive a rousing welcome at the Parc des Princes on Wednesday for PSG’s Ligue 1 meeting with Angers.
It would be a routine fixture in ordinary circumstances. It is a special one because it should be the first competitive action of Messi’s garlanded career as a World Cup holder.
So why the careful urging of cheers by Galtier? In the 25 days since Messi led Argentina to victory at the Lusail Stadium after a thrilling conclusion to the World Cup final, he has kept his ear to the ground and noted that glory in national colours is not always loudly appreciated by the followers of a player’s principal employer, their club.
When Messi’s Argentinian colleagues Rodrigo de Paul and Nahuel Molina trotted out in front of Atletico Madrid’s fans two weeks ago, their gold medals around their necks, they were audibly booed and whistled by some.
The source of the scorn was the perception that the performances of De Paul in particular in Qatar showed a vigour and incisiveness lacking from his club showings. Angel Correa, the popular Atletico winger who played a marginal role in Argentina’s success, was cheered when he displayed his medal.
Time was that PSG fans might have harboured a suspicion that Messi makes his national team a priority, ahead of his club. When he joined the Ligue 1 leaders after a tearful departure from Barcelona in 2021, he had just guided Argentina to the Copa America, a landmark for Messi, whose long career had, until that summer, traced a startling contrast between his many club trophies and a blank record with the senior national team.
He was inspiring in the Copa, but had a mixed first season in France, his output of goals shrunk from his own high standard, his impact on key Champions League matches, notably the defeat to Real Madrid in the last-16 stage, far lower than anticipated.
Messi’s 2022-2023, however, has been a happy continuum of excellence. He went to the World Cup on the back of 12 goals and 14 assists from his 19 PSG appearances across competitions.
After the blip of an opening game defeat to Saudi Arabia, the same, ageless brilliance from 35-year-old galvanised Argentina. Messi finished as player of the tournament, the winning captain and with seven goals among his 10 goal-contributions.
His PSG colleagues rolled out the red carpet when Messi returned from an agreed post-World Cup break last week. A guard of honour was formed at the club’s practice ground. He was presented with a bespoke club trophy, as PSG’s Marco Verratti and Gini Donnarumma were after they won the European Championship with Italy, and as Kylian Mbappe and Presnel Kimpembe were after they won the 2018 World Cup with France.
And it is to the nation deposed as world champions that Messi has returned for the next chapter of his gilded career, to be played largely in stadiums where the audience is mostly French.
That Messi’s Argentina defeated France in the World Cup final, by the narrow margin of victory by penalty shoot-out after Mbappe had led two comebacks, hardly makes him a villain for every French citizen. But there will be many in the Parc des Princes audience this evening whose dreams were crushed by Messi during that dramatic final.
There will be tens of thousands, too, who seek quick evidence that his dazzling form before the World Cup is sustainable, that it was not part of a carefully curated momentum to have him peak in December for his country, timetabling his inevitable fatigue for the new year.
PSG’s Qatari owners are keen for Messi to drive a successful run in the Champions League, where next month Bayern Munich are the opposition in the last 16. They are still keener that he agrees to a contract extension that would keep him in Paris next season and up until he turns 37.
“There a real desire at the club for him to stay on,” said Galtier, who is looking from a show of strength from his players against Angers, PSG having lost, in Messi’s absence, their previous LIgue 1 match, at Lens.
“We are very, very lucky to have Leo Messi,” Galtier reminded supporters. “We have a world champion, an extraordinary player who had an exceptional World Cup. There’s no reason for our fans not to cheer and celebrate him.”