Sergio Busquets could act as Pied Piper for Lionel Messi with possible Saudi Arabia move

Veteran midfielder has announced end to his Barcelona career with Middle East switch on cards

Sergio Busquets, left, and Lionel Messi, centre, could follow old Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez, right, by joining a Middle East club as a player. AFP
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Barcelona are becoming accustomed to emotional farewells and if the announcement that Sergio Busquets, the captain, will be leaving after 15 years setting the highest standards was not greeted with quite such heartache as when Lionel Messi departed Camp Nou, a heavy curtain is still being drawn on an era.

The confirmation that Busquets will not extend a contract that expires in June was less abrupt than, say, Gerard Pique's quitting, as the former doyen of Barcelona’s back line did with his retirement last November. Nor was it as profoundly sad as Sergio Aguero’s enforced full stop on his career because of a cardiac problem.

But the significance of Busquets' decision is greater – not only because he will be playing on, taking his status as a peerlessly effective anchor midfielder elsewhere, but because he may also be acting as Pied Piper for Messi’s next pathway.

The probability of Busquets moving to Saudi Arabia has grown in recent weeks, with as many as three Pro League clubs, including newly deposed Asian club champions Al Hilal readying lucrative offers for the 34-year-old. His camp are happy to encourage the idea of an auction and believe there is interest from Al Nassr, Cristiano Ronaldo’s employers, and Al Shabab, coached by the Spaniard Vicente Moreno, who knows Busquets.

An alternative destination had been the US. Inter Miami have told Busquets they would like him to join, and the Florida club would, ideally, one day reunite the midfielder with Messi, who is to leave Paris Saint-Germain next month. Messi’s friendship and long professional association with Busquets mean, at very least, they have discussed future plans with one another.

Some of those conversations have gone further, towards the idea of spending their mid to late 30s at the same club, or at least as near-neighbours.

As Busquets prepared to make official his imminent departure from Barca, with a spell in Saudi Arabia the most likely next step for him, Messi’s father Jorge was issuing a statement to firmly deny there was yet any commitment from his son on where he will be playing as of August.

Jorge, who acts for Lionel, was responding to reports that Messi, whose contract in Paris expires next month, has warmed to the idea of joining Al Hilal in preference to a financially inferior offer for a return to Barcelona that the Catalans have been trying to set up within their budget restrictions, or a move to Miami. “No decision will be made before Lionel finishes the season with PSG,” said Jorge Messi.

Xavi, the Barcelona manager, had wanted Busquets to stay at Camp Nou, but, with the club obliged to cut their salary bill if they wish to make summer signings and still conform with La Liga’s Financial Fair Play constraints, the deal he was offered meant taking a sizeable wage cut. Busquets told Xavi last week he would be leaving and probably following a path similar to Xavi’s own when he stepped down as Barca skipper in 2015.

Xavi joined Al Sadd in Qatar, as player and then as coach. The next Barca captain, Andres Iniesta, followed his farewell, in 2019, with a move to Japan's Vissel Kobe, where he still plays. The fashion for Barca legends to go on and build careers in the Asian football confederation is well set – and, for that, may be a pointer to what Messi does next.

Busquets’ last trophy lift with Barcelona will be the Liga title, which the club could seal this weekend. It will be his 31st prize as a Barcelona icon, a player Iniesta yesterday hailed as “number one”. At his best, he combined superb positional instincts with a passing game to match those of Xavi and Iniesta. His capacity to regain possession and intercept danger earned him the nickname “The Octopus”.

Promoted into the first team by Pep Guardiola, he was a key part of the 2009 Treble-winning Barca, and essential to the Messi-inspired side, two years later, that won the second of Busquets' three European Cups and were feted as the finest club team of the 21st century.

Busquets won a World Cup and a European championship with Spain, who he captained when they reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020. He retired from internationals after winning his 143rd cap at Qatar 2022.

But saying goodbye to Barcelona, the club he grew up supporting, where his father, Carles played as a goalkeeper, after more than 700 games feels a bigger emotional wrench.

“It has been an honour, a dream and a source of pride,” said Busquets, “but everything has a beginning and an end, and although it has not been an easy decision, the moment has come.”

Updated: May 10, 2023, 4:05 PM