Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona always felt like an unrealistic proposition. Then it happened. Then, even though PSG looked like his most probable destination, that move still sent shockwaves throughout the footballing world. However, it would still not come close to the tremors it would cause if Lionel Messi were to leave PSG to join his eternal rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, in Saudi Arabia, by joining Al Hilal.
What started as mere wishful thinking for fantasy enthusiasts, the thought of seeing Ronaldo and Messi collide again has turned into a very realistic scenario. There is always a lot of transfer news in football and when the contract of someone as big as Messi is nearing its end, that speculation inevitably reaches fever pitch.
We dig into the news which started as a rumor, seek to separate fact from fiction, and try to answer the question- Is Lionel Messi going to Al Hilal?
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Al Hilal – Lionel Messi story – No smoke without a fire?
When Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr, one of Al Hilal’s big rivals, the message from the gulf superpower was loud and clear. They had the resources, and the will, to attract the biggest players. Ronaldo was to be just the beginning of a revolution that was set to reach a crescendo in 2030. That is the year Saudi Arabia intends to bid the World Cup for.
Who better to become the face of that campaign than the global superstar they’re already partners with- Lionel Messi?
At Messi’s end, this rumor has picked up pace rather recently. After a slow first season in Paris, he burst to life in his second year, combining well with Mbappe and Neymar to propel PSG forward. However, another limp UCL exit, this time to Bayern Munich, has cast fresh doubt on his future. Some sponsors of Al Hilal are already hinting towards the move being a done deal if their social media is anything to go by.
❗An official Al-Hilal sponsor has just tweeted an ad saying "Welcome, our boy", featuring a Leo Messi graphic and a 'M10' discount code.
Al-Hilal is one of the clubs reportedly interested in signing Messi in the summer. pic.twitter.com/0017JSWmU4
— Barça Universal (@BarcaUniversal) March 21, 2023
Combine that with president Nasser Al-Khelaifi proclaiming the end of “bling-bling” era, Kylian Mbappe’s future at PSG perpetually hanging in the balance, and Neymar’s powers waning, the opportunity is there for PSG to hit a hard reset on the club and culture.
For Messi, there aren’t many destinations in European club football due to his stature, and likely wage demands. Barcelona, the romantic’s choice, lurches from one crisis to another. Manchester City have a cyborg up front in Erling Haaland who scores in his sleep.
Outside of Europe, there are only two viable destinations. His links with Inter Miami refuse to go away. His arrival in MLS would lift the league into another stratosphere altogether. Then there’s the elephant in the room- Saudi Arabia, and pointedly, Al Hilal. The latter becomes the natural destination between these two choices. Here’s why.
🚨 Understand Al Hilal sent an official bid to Leo Messi: salary worth more than €400m/year.
◉ Leo’s absolute priority: continue in Europe.
◉ Barcelona, waiting on FFP to send bid and open talks.
◉ PSG bid, not accepted at this stage as Messi wanted sporting guarantees. pic.twitter.com/FVTDGs4eQV
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) April 4, 2023
As much off-field significance as on it
Al Nassr’s splash for Cristiano Ronaldo put the football world on notice. Furthermore, the success of the move on the pitch has lent credence to Ronaldo’s sporting ambitions too.
However, the biggest beneficiary of the move has been the Saudi Arabian league. Signing Ronaldo instantly helped them strike broadcast agreements across the globe. Press presence increased, Al Nassr shirts flew off the shelves, and even a mid-season friendly against Messi’s PSG attracted global attention.
This global pull stands at the centre of Al Hilal’s chase of Lionel Messi. Having Messi and Ronaldo in the league instantly makes it a must-watch affair. The Gulf giants have seen the kind of popularity and positive attention football’s global superstars attract. Qatar mastered it and had the dream World Cup where the poster boys of PSG, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, went at it in a thrilling final. Could Messi vs Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia be their version of that duet, as a precursor to the World Cup 2030 bid?
Separating fact from fiction
Lionel Messi’s father and agent Jorge recently came out to deny rumors about Messi wanting £524m to join Al Hilal. However, interestingly, Messi’s camp didn’t deny rumors linking him to Al Hilal. Recent reports indicate that Al Hilal are prepared to match, or even exceed Ronaldo’s earnings at Al Nassr to entice Lionel Messi. And if recent reports are anything to go by, the Argentinian has already received and stalled on a mammoth offer from Al Hilal. Messi is keeping his cards close to his chest as PSG seek to end the season with another Ligue 1 title.
Still, the way things have trended since PSG’s UCL exit, it is looking increasingly unlikely that he extends with the club. If that doesn’t happen, then there aren’t many other destinations that make more sense for Lionel Messi, on and off the pitch, than Al Hilal.