It was revealed last Thursday that he could not return to Barcelona -- negotiations had been ongoing with the French club since that day, when Barca announced "economic obstacles" prevented them from formalising the five-year contract they had agreed with Messi -- and the world's media were waiting for his next move. International news agencies had video journalists stationed at his house, at the airports in Barcelona and Paris, at the Paris hospital where PSG's new signings typically undergo their medicals, and at the French club's headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt.
On Tuesday, the image finally arrived as Messi, who spent 21 years at Barca after joining at age 13, headed to the airport.
His former teammate and close friend Luis Suarez had left minutes earlier, having spent the past two days at the Messi household. Later that day, Messi, a one-club man no more, was unveiled by PSG, signing an initial two-year deal with the Ligue 1 side. His every move throughout the day had already been tracked by camera crews all over the French capital before the club finally released a drone video taking viewers on a dramatic tour of the club shop and stadium before honing in on Messi, stood on the centre spot at the Parc des Princes after his move was completed.
Messi wanted to quit Barca 12 months ago. At the time, sources told ESPN that Manchester City were his preferred destination club, although PSG were also in the race. This time, though, he didn't want to leave. In an interview with journalist Jordi Evole last December, Messi said he would wait until the end of the 2020-21 season before making any decision on his future. By the end of the campaign, it had become increasingly apparent he now wanted to stay.
The return of Joan Laporta as president had been key in his turnaround. Laporta was the president when Messi broke into Barca's first team. He was the president when Pep Guardiola was appointed as manager, too, and oversaw a period of dominance including Barca's first treble in 2009, led by Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. The charismatic lawyer had a good relationship with the player and his father, Jorge. Shortly after Laporta was elected in March for a second term, he had lunch with Messi, who has since explained that he left that meeting convinced he would prolong his relationship with Barcelona.
However, with each passing week, the true extent of Barca's financial problems came into stark focus. The club's gross debt was creeping toward €1.2 billion, and LaLiga president Javier Tebas warned that, without huge cutbacks, they would not be permitted to register a new deal for Messi. (It's still not clear whether they will even be able to register their summer signings before the league kicks off this weekend: Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia and Emerson Royal were all ostensibly signed to keep Messi happy with the squad.)
Barcelona blamed those financial issues for being unable to keep Messi, but the story runs deeper than that. This was about years of mismanagement and overspending; a feud between LaLiga and its top two clubs; two of the biggest figures in Barca's recent history falling out; a late plot twist; and hurried negotiations in Paris stretching late into the night.
It all contributed to the realisation of a dream held by Qatar Sports Investments since QSI purchased PSG in 2011. This is how one of the game's greatest-ever players was forced to leave his boyhood club after a record-breaking 672 goals in 778 games and 35 trophies in 16 glittering seasons.
With additional reporting by Rob Dawson, Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal, Moises Llorens and Rodrigo Faez
The breaking point for Messi, Barcelona, LaLiga
Two weeks ago, Messi was certain he would sign a new deal with Barcelona, but by the time he flew to Paris on Tuesday, he felt let down and betrayed by the club. He didn't criticise anyone when he said goodbye in a news conference on Sunday, but he hinted he wasn't completely satisfied that the club had done all they could to keep him.
In fact, Messi had already reached an agreement to extend his contract with Barcelona. Sources told ESPN in July that a five-year deal had been agreed, with Messi accepting a 50% pay cut. The salary would be staggered so that Messi would earn more in the final year of the deal than the first. The club confirmed that terms had been agreed when they revealed Messi's departure last Thursday but also that the league's financial fair play rules meant it was impossible to register that deal.
Barca's spending limit for wages and transfers was over €600 million before the pandemic. Sources estimate it will be around €200m for the upcoming season. Speaking last Friday, Laporta explained that the club's losses for last season were nudging €500m -- over double what had been estimated. The Barca president said that, with Messi, the club's wage bill was 110% of revenue; without Messi, it was 95%. Under the league's regulations, the wages-to-revenue limit must be around 70%, meaning that even if Messi had taken a bigger wage reduction or played for free -- something he couldn't have done as the league has a minimum salary requirement of around €155,000 per year -- Barca still wouldn't have been able to register him without big cutbacks.
Laporta, though, has known this for months. He knew the financial situation when he was elected in March; and he knew the financial situation when he signed Garcia, Aguero, Emerson and Depay. He blamed the "shipwreck" on the previous board and said an internal audit had shown the club's economic state was "much worse than expected," but he hadn't always acted as if this was a club facing up to a new reality after years of financial mismanagement under the previous president, Josep Maria Bartomeu.
But there was an out for Laporta.
In mid-July, he met with the LaLiga president Tebas, who outlined the league's plan to sell 10% of its commercial business to the investment fund, CVC Capital Partners. The sale, worth €2.7 billion, would benefit every Spanish club financially; it would also, crucially, allow Barca to register Messi's new contract. Tebas has since said there was "enthusiasm in abundance" from the Barca directors present at the meeting about their improved chances of renewing Messi.
However, by the time LaLiga announced the deal last Wednesday, Laporta had backtracked. Sources explained that Barcelona CEO Ferran Reverter convinced him that the deal wasn't in Barca's best interests and that they would be giving up too much to CVC Capital Partners, who would pocket around 10% of the league's revenue (including television rights) for the next 50 years. After Real Madrid released a statement criticising the deal, Barca followed suit. Laporta had backed out, giving up on Messi in the process. In the days since, Madrid have announced they will sue LaLiga and CVC over the agreement, while on Wednesday morning, the Royal Spanish Football Federation branded the sale "illegal."
Laporta and Madrid president Florentino Perez have been feuding with Tebas and LaLiga over the European Super League for months, too. A source at the league, though, said there was nothing in the CVC deal that would have outright quashed plans for a breakaway European competition.
Messi returned to Barcelona last Wednesday after time away in Miami, the Dominican Republic and Ibiza. A photograph of him in Ibiza with Neymar and three other PSG players was a "coincidence," he'd later say, and sources insist he returned to Spain with the intention of signing his new Barca contract this past Thursday, the same day his dad was due to fly in from Miami. However, Laporta had seemingly determined that it was financially "impossible" to renew Messi's terms. In a news conference on Friday, he said he would have been putting the club's future in jeopardy by signing off on the CVC deal, even if meant keeping Messi.
Sources close to the negotiations told ESPN there are doubts about Laporta's version of events, about when he decided it wasn't viable to keep Messi and about how, and when, he communicated everything to the player and his father. One source even suggested Laporta had known for weeks but strung the Messi family along, keen to make it look as if he had done all he could to keep the six-time World Player of the Year. The source pointed to Barca's failure to offer a new contract to Pepe Costa, who was officially part of the club's player care unit, when his terms expired in June.
Costa's main role was as Messi's confidant inside the dressing room. He will likely find a home in Paris. The same source also labelled the summer signings as "strange" if Laporta hoped to renew Messi, although it was true Messi had wanted a team capable of competing in all competitions, from LaLiga to the Champions League.
"Ask the club," Jorge told reporters on Tuesday when asked whether anyone was to blame for his son's premature exit.
On Sunday, a day after holding a farewell party at his house, Messi broke his silence in a news conference at the auditorium next to Camp Nou. It was attended by his family, the first-team squad, former teammates (and friends) Xavi Hernandez and Puyol, among others. As tears streamed down his face, he spoke of his sadness at having to leave.
"I don't know [whether Barca did all they could to keep me], what I am clear about is that I did everything I could," he said. "Laporta said we couldn't do it because of the league [rules]. I can tell you that I did all that I could to stay, because I wanted to stay."
Messi's comments made it clear he had some reservations about Laporta's story. Images of Laporta hugging Messi were abundant after he was elected for a second time in March, but sources told ESPN that Messi didn't want to have photographs with the president after Sunday's farewell event, when he posed with all the trophies he has won at Barca with friends, teammates and ex-teammates. Instead, the only image of the two that day was a cold handshake as Messi left Camp Nou one last time; sources confirmed that the relationship between the two is damaged.
There had been growing tension between them in the previous days, and that resulted in each giving his own news conference as they went their separate ways. In the 48 hours since Messi's exit, one director, Jaume Llopis, has stepped down, saying Barca "didn't do everything they could" and highlighting Laporta's behaviour since everything unravelled.
Last Friday, Laporta was spotted at a Jose Luis Perales concert, singing the unfortunate lyrics "y se marcho" ("and he left") and on Saturday, he met with Madrid chief Perez and Juventus president Andrea Agnelli. This week, he's been in Ibiza.
"Nobody can understand that while fans are crying about Leo leaving, Laporta is enjoying a fish supper with Real Madrid's president," Llopis told Spanish radio. "That doesn't paint a very good image."
Llopis' complaint is that Laporta didn't put everything into keeping Messi. He feels Laporta could have done more before and after Thursday's announcement. Instead, Laporta quickly turned the page, and his meeting with Perez and Agnelli, the last-standing components of the Super League project, irked people around the club.
Meanwhile, Messi's Barca's teammates were stunned by everything that happened. It was over 24 hours before any of them posted on social media. Sergio Busquets was the first; the rest of the squad followed soon after. "No one wanted to be the first," one player told ESPN.
On Sunday, there were tears at Messi's farewell, but also a determination to do well without him. "We still have a great squad," the player added.
Messi looks to Paris
The breakdown of Messi's new contract with Barcelona caught Europe's elite by surprise. A source at Man City says they were "blindsided" by the developments, although high-ranking executives at the club did learn Messi was leaving a full 24 hours before the official announcement. They had not expected him to become available and had made alternative plans, signing Jack Grealish from Aston Villa for €100m while still pursuing Tottenham striker Harry Kane.
Another source at the English club says there were brief talks and "some division" over whether to chase Messi again, but unlike last year, they were never really in the running this time.
Messi said his camp fielded several calls after Barca's announcement, and another source confirmed that Atletico Madrid, after signing Suarez last year, had sounded out a potential deal. They thought it was possible at €20m gross for the first year, which was what he would have earned at Barcelona next season, but it was quickly understood that PSG had firmly established themselves as the leading candidate for his signature.
On Thursday, as Barca announced Messi's departure, sources told ESPN that Jorge Messi called PSG's president Nasser Al-Khelaifi to see what they could offer. He confirmed that his son was definitely leaving Barca, although PSG, like City, were caught by surprise. They had been told he was set to renew.
After Jorge's call, PSG CEO Jean-Claude Blanc and his team worked late into the night to get an offer on the table for Messi as soon as possible. They were not starting from scratch; a year ago, when Messi announced he wanted to leave Barca, they spoke to his dad and started working on a contract offer. Since then, Neymar had been pushing for a reunion with his former teammate, telling ESPN last December that he hoped to play with Messi again soon. In January, PSG sporting director Leonardo confirmed the club were monitoring Messi's contract situation, and Leonardo and Al-Khelaifi have kept in touch with the Messi camp from time to time over the past year.
Sources have told ESPN, meanwhile, that at around the same time this past winter, Neymar was sounding out Sergio Ramos and Messi, both in the final six months of their contracts, to join him in Paris. Ramos joined PSG from Madrid earlier this summer, but by then, it had already become apparent Messi would not be joining them. Therefore, when Messi's situation drastically changed last week, PSG were ready.
The Factory, PSG's HQ in Boulogne-Billancourt, in the west suburbs of Paris, was buzzing with activity until the early hours of the morning, and the challenge was simple: make the deal appealing for Messi and viable for the club.
UEFA's financial fair play rules have been paused due to the pandemic, but sources explain that PSG still have the regulations in mind when it comes to long-term planning. Having already renewed Neymar's contact this year and signed Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, Gianluigi Donnarumma and Georginio Wijnaldum, they needed to be certain they could afford Messi as well. Meanwhile, sources add that PSG owner Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, was being kept informed of every detail. Since buying the club 10 years ago, he has had two dreams: to sign either Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo and to win the Champions League. They have previously come close with Ronaldo but never quite pulled it off.
Not having to pay a transfer fee didn't mean Messi came cheap. There was a signing-on fee and salary for Messi, and then the commission for his father and for the other people involved in the deal. (Sources told ESPN that some big agents tried to get in on the action.) It was a little more difficult to finalise some of the more intricate parts of the deal, such as image rights -- that part of Messi's contract was reportedly close to 70 pages in length and detail, with Messi's lawyers poring over every detail and every bit of punctuation. Given Messi's individual sponsors and PSG's commercial partners, all parties needed to define and agree upon what the Argentine star could and could not do.
In the end, it didn't take long to find common ground, and from there, PSG's legal team worked through the weekend as the club planned the logistics of Messi's arrival in Paris.
Neymar had been the first PSG player to speak to Messi on Thursday once his Barca exit was announced. For a year, he's been asking Messi to join him in the French capital, praising the club and the city. The Brazilian was also on the phone to PSG president Al-Khelaifi pushing for the deal to be done while the PSG players' WhatsApp group was abuzz with activity and excitement as they discussed their new teammate. Angel Di Maria, Messi's international teammate, was also on his case, as he has known Messi since they were 14.
Before the weekend, Messi spoke with PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino at length over the phone, discussing the team, tactics and what Messi's role would be. They know each other because Pochettino is, like Messi, from Rosario, although they are not close. On the call, the former Tottenham manager also reminded Messi that he'd been the Espanyol captain the day Messi made his Barcelona debut at Montjuic in 2004!
PSG were supposed to be preparing for their Ligue 1 opener against Troyes, but by now everyone was thinking and talking about Messi; by Friday, Neymar had announced to his teammates that Messi was joining. Pochettino brushed off questions in a news conference but confirmed the club were working on it. Talks were so advanced on Saturday that both Al-Khelaifi and Leonardo canceled their trip to Troyes to watch the team in their opening game of the season (a win). Instead, they remained in Paris to finalise the negotiations.
Later that day, the players were told that Messi was joining the club.
Messi's contract is initially for two years and is worth €35m before tax, not including achievement-related bonuses and the signing-on fee. PSG had hoped to fly Messi in on Sunday, then waited for him to arrive on Monday, only for a few minor delays meaning he eventually arrived on Tuesday. Whole roads in Paris were cordoned off to allow him some privacy, although he briefly appeared on a balcony, wearing an "Ici c'est Paris" T-shirt, to wave to his new fans.
PSG had planned to hold a news conference on Tuesday but delayed it until Wednesday due to media demand. They had also hoped to present him at the Eiffel Tower, but too much red tape (permits, security clearances) deterred them; instead, he will be presented to supporters at the Parc des Princes this weekend before the Strasbourg game. His first game for the club won't be immediate; Pochettino has drawn up a fitness program that should have Messi match-ready by the end of August -- probably to face Reims -- before he joins Argentina for the September international break.
Before Tuesday's unveiling, Messi sent a message to Neymar letting him know the deal was done. Neymar had been willing to vacate his No. 10 shirt to his friend, but Messi declined, happy with the number 30 -- the number with which he started his career at 17 at Barcelona. Yet even that wasn't a smooth process; PSG had to ask the league for permission because in France No. 30 is reserved for goalkeepers.
In the end, Ligue 1 made an exception. After all, it's not every day the best player in the world comes to town.