A Lionel Messi decision is near. He 'wants to return to Barca,' but MLS, Saudi Arabia still in mix

PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 03: Lionel Messi of Paris Saint Germain (PSG) warming up before the French league football match between Paris Saint Germin (PSG) and Clermont Foot at Parc des Princes stadium, in Paris, on JUNE 03, 2023. (Photo by Ibrahim Ezzat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Lionel Messi is perhaps the most high-profile free agent in sports history. (Photo by Ibrahim Ezzat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Lionel Messi is nearing a decision that could shift the balance of power in global soccer. He is a free agent with three apparent options: Barcelona, MLS' Inter Miami and Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal. According to just about everyone, from plugged-in reporters to Barca coach Xavi, Messi is expected to choose between the three this week.

And so, after Jorge Messi, Leo's father and agent, met with Barca president Joan Laporta on Monday, cameras and microphone-wielding journalists swarmed him, pressing for answers, clues, hints about where the greatest player ever is leaning.

Jorge, shielded by sunglasses and a stern expression, didn't give many. He did, though, say in Spanish that "Leo wants to return to Barca, and I would also like him to return." And he confirmed that Barca is in fact an "option."

The first part of Jorge's statement, about Leo's desires, is old news. The latter part, however, had been called into question by reports and rumors last week. Barca, saddled with financial problems and restricted by La Liga rules, did not have clearance from the Spanish league to sign Messi. The Catalan club, therefore, had not even been able to present a formal offer to their living legend.

Clearance has apparently now arrived — "La Liga approved the plan," transfer insider Fabrizio Romano tweeted Monday — which presumably led to the meeting between Jorge Messi and Laporta at Laporta's home, and Jorge's declaration that a reunion is plausible, and an "option."

But it is one of at least three options. By all accounts, Saudi Arabia and MLS remain in the mix — in part because Barca still has hurdles to clear.

Is Barcelona now the favorite?

There are several potential readings of the Messi-Laporta meeting and the dialogue around Leo's potential return to the club he adores. One is that it has gone from impossible to possible in recent days, and therefore likely. It would make perfect sense, after all, that Messi would want to stay in Europe, in the Champions League, at the sport's highest level; and that he would want to recapture his life in Barcelona, the city where he lived from age 13 to 34. If Barca can make it happen, presumably it will.

Another reading, though, is that Messi's camp would like the Spanish public to believe that he has given Barca every chance to arrange a storybook return, while in reality his eyes are now elsewhere.

That was the savviest reading of a column that Guillem Balague, a Spanish journalist close to Messi's camp, wrote last week. It pushed back on narratives that blamed anybody other than Barca for the regulatory complications that were hindering negotiations. It stated that Messi's camp "has told Barcelona the decision on his future is imminent and they cannot wait any longer for a proposal from [Barca] that has not arrived."

Balague wrote, plainly, that we'd soon know "where [Messi] will be playing his football next season — [and] the only thing that seems certain is that it will not be at Barcelona."

Perhaps that stance has changed in recent days. Perhaps La Liga has relented on its "Financial Fair Play" rules, or perhaps Barca has worked some magic. But time is running out. Laporta and Barca still haven't presented an official bid, Romano reported a couple hours after Monday's meeting.

The only real certainties are that Barca would still have to sell players to make room for Messi, and even then, the GOAT would have to take a significant pay cut, especially considering the money available in Saudi Arabia.

What about Saudi Arabia and Al Hilal?

The Saudi offer has been on the table for over a month now, and it's lucrative. Messi would reportedly earn some $400 million per year (or more), by far the highest annual salary in sports history.

He'd play for Al Hilal, the Saudi Pro League's most successful club, but the money would come from the government's Public Investment Fund, a bottomless well of wealth into which the ruling family plans to dip to raise the profile of the league (and, by extension, the kingdom).

As of last week, the Saudis seemed like favorites to land Messi. A May 9 report from AFP — which Jorge Messi denied — suggested that it was already a "done deal." The Saudi authorities are reportedly ready for Messi's arrival, with all logistics in place, pending word from the player himself.

So perhaps it will indeed happen — or perhaps this too is a performance, an effort to accelerate a deal as Barca stalls for time.

Are MLS and Inter Miami still an option?

Of the many parties involved in these multi-pronged negotiations, the quietest have been the American ones. That could be a sign of waning confidence. Or it could be strategic, or natural.

What we know is that Inter Miami and MLS officials have been in touch with Messi's camp. They have, according to Fabrizio Romano, "presented their bid."

Argentine journalist Veronica Brunati reported that the salary on offer in Miami is 10% of what Messi would earn in Saudi Arabia. Balague reported that Apple and Adidas are indeed involved to "help bump up the deal," but that "the initial reaction from the Messi camp was that that offer was too complex and they were unconvinced." (Here's how and why a potential deal involving Apple could work.)

The public noise, therefore, would indicate that Miami and MLS sit in third-place in this three-horse race. But they are, at the very least, in the race.

Does Messi have other options?

Romano reported last week that "more European clubs [had been] approaching" as Messi's decision loomed. But none have been named — throughout this months-long saga, only the three horses and PSG have presented themselves as real options.

So, with PSG now officially off the table, it is Barca, Saudi Arabia or Miami. And it seems that Messi's indecisiveness is legitimate — that the process is at an advanced stage, but no final choice has been made.

With microphones dancing in his face after the meeting with Laporta, in between assurances that Leo would love to return to Barcelona, Jorge Messi proclaimed: "I don't know anything yet."