Lionel Messi Nasser Al Khelaifi PSG GFXGetty Images

Messi to PSG: A transfer 10 years in the making and completed in a matter of days

Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain was a transfer 10 years in the making but was ultimately completed in a matter of days.

Presented with the unique opportunity to sign a player that they have long coveted, PSG moved with the ruthless efficiency that they have become known for in the market to complete the signing of the the Barcelona icon, a player who many thought would never play for another European club.

‘Dream Bigger’ is the slogan of PSG. When they completed a world record €222 million ($262m/£189m) move to sign Neymar in the summer of 2017 in a deal that forever changed the footballing landscape, it barely seemed possible that they might achieve a more sensational coup.

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Yet four years on they have in their ranks arguably the greatest player that the game has ever seen. PSG’s Qatari owners, QSI, certainly think so.

When QSI took over PSG in the summer of 2011, their ambition was to make the Parc des Princes club one of Europe’s flagship teams. While the club’s detractors argue this is a side with no history, they forget that PSG were, by the measure of UEFA’s coefficient at least, the continent’s finest side in the mid-1990s, boasting talent such as David Ginola and George Weah.

It is true, though, by the time that QSI took over that they were down on their luck. Indeed, just a handful of seasons earlier, they had won a final-day match in Sochaux to avoid relegation to Ligue 2.

Amid such a backdrop, it seemed fanciful that PSG could be transformed into a club that a player the stature of Messi might consider joining. And yet, from the outset, QSI targeted both the Argentine and his long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo as benchmark signings as they set out to make the Parisians European champions.

Paris, as one of the world’s most recognisable cities and a hotbed of footballing talent, they reckoned, was ripe to be exploited as a venue for an elite side. The raw materials – including the iconic status, an urban population of more than two million and, yes, a footballing history - were present.

QSI brought their marketing savvy and, crucially, the catalyst of money. An awful lot of money.

Over a decade they have built a club worthy of the game’s greatest players, all the while keeping tabs on the actions of Messi and Ronaldo, until last summer it became evident that the Argentine was unsettled and even wanted to leave Barcelona.

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Although this was shut down by erstwhile Blaugrana president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who demanded a huge transfer fee for the player - Messi wrongly believed he had a clause in his contract that allowed him to depart for free - the door had been opened as the Argentine entered the final year of a bumper deal with the Catalans.

PSG tried to prise it open with a public charm offensive led by several of Messi’s friends in the Parc des Princes club’s ranks. Neymar, Angel Di Maria, Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes were among those who sought to plant a seed in the mind of ‘La Pulga’.

Speaking in December 2020, just before PSG could have opened formal discussions with the player, Paredes said: “We all want him to come. I hope Leo makes the best decision for himself, but we would welcome him here with open arms.”

Messi, though, was insistent that he would wait until the end of the season before deciding his future, with Barca unable to get close to the terms he was previously on due to their spiralling debts, which amounted to over €1.2 billion ($1.4bn/£1bn).

In the meantime, his situation at Camp Nou looked rosier. Bartomeu had tendered his resignation and Joan Laporta swept back into power as president, voted in on a ticket of being the man to keep Messi at the club.

The end of the season came, with Barca third in La Liga and dumped out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage. No deal was done. The next landmark date was June 30, the final day of Messi’s previous contract. Still no deal was done.

And even after Messi led Argentina to their first international title since 1993 at the Copa America, still no deal was done.

A contract was in place, barring a few minor details, but it would never be signed, despite the permanently public upbeat attitude of Laporta and his board.

Until the end, Barca were bullish over Messi’s future but La Liga would not make any concessions to them with regards the salary cap they needed to abide to, making it impossible for him to be registered.

Then came that fateful Thursday, August 5. It is a date that will long be written in footballing history as the one when Messi’s future at Barcelona was finally over.   

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles,” Barcelona lamented in a statement tacitly criticising La Liga’s lack of support for their plight.

“As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

With the European season a matter of days away, the greatest player on the planet was leaving his home of more than two decades and needed a club. The pain told as he gave his tearful goodbye press conference at Barcelona.

“Everyone knows how hard it was for me to leave Barcelona,” Messi explained. “It’s hard to think about a change after so long.”

Yet that was the reality he found himself in.

Messi’s options were limited. Manchester City, where his long-time mentor Pep Guardiola has set up camp, had just spent big on Jack Grealish, while the only other club capable and willing to shoulder his wage demands was PSG. So his entourage contacted the club.

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Beyond the riches that PSG possess, there were other attractions for Messi, most notably a clan of close friends at the club. Neymar, for example, had been trying to talk him into moving to France for two years following the pair’s close relationship at Barcelona.

Di Maria is another good friend, and along with Paredes and Verratti. It is not unusual to see the group pictured together on social media during their downtime. Three such examples hinted towards this outcome.

During the Copa America, Messi shared an image of himself in an ice bath flanked by Paredes and Di Maria, then after the tournament had been won, he was pictured joking with Neymar in an apparently intimate manner.

Finally, on August 4, mere hours before his Barcelona career was finally over, he appeared on Di Maria’s Instagram feed pictured in Ibiza alongside that familiar quartet of stars in an image that could now pass as a PSG squad photo. All parties insist, however, that there is no correlation between this picture and what transpired.

Speaking at his press conference, Messi said: “They were saying: ‘Come to Paris, come to Paris’, but it's a total coincidence that the photo was taken with the PSG players in Ibiza in the same week as all of this.”

This version of events is corroborated by Di Maria, who told ESPN: “Leo has said it already, it was just coincidence. We were going there with him and Paredes. Then Neymar came and invited us, and Verratti joined us. Leo was being told to come to PSG, but everything was set for him at Barca. He told us he was going to stay there.”

Messi’s world was turned upside down 24 hours later and, having received contact from his entourage, PSG sprang into action.

Having followed the player for the best part of a decade, this was an unexpected opportunity. He had been sounded out on occasion before, but it was only after Barcelona’s announcement last Thursday that a deal became viable.

Neymar was a cheerleader for PSG in the deal, texting and calling his friend, urging him to reach an agreement.

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Internally, meanwhile, serious discussions were taking place over the viability of signing him. In particular, the financial department worked on the dossier with regards to Financial Fair Play as the club had already captured Achraf Hakimi, Georginio Wijnaldum, Sergio Ramos and Gianluigi Donnarumma this summer.

Even if PSG only paid a fee for Hakimi, all command huge wages.

PSG concluded that the Messi deal could be given the green light, although they have committed to making €180m ($212m/£153m) worth of player sales this summer - a major challenge in a stagnant transfer market. Nevertheless, as far as PSG were concerned, that was a problem for another time.

Things picked up pace from there. An agreement was quickly reached with Messi over a two-year deal, including the possibility of an additional season. Even somewhat complicated issues were resolved relatively speedily.

By Saturday, an agreement in principle had been reached and PSG purred into gear, with the marketing department particularly active in devising a strategy to maximise reach.

The following day, the momentum of the deal seemed to stall as fans gathered outside La Bourget Airport to welcome him to Paris. Only there was no Messi; he was pictured back home in Barcelona relaxing.

While far-fetched rumours of a move elsewhere appeared and disappeared just as quickly, Messi’s lawyers were going over the contract details in fine detail.

It was on the morning of August 10 that the formal offer that Messi would accept was presented to him. By this stage the deal was an open secret; the player had already appeared at the window of his hotel bedecked in a club T-shirt.

Hours later, the impossible had happened. Messi was pictured holding a PSG shirt inside Parc des Princes, having formally signed to join the club, marking both the greatest crossroads in his career and also in the history of France’s strongest club.

On Saturday, Messi and the club's other summer signings will be presented to the PSG fans ahead of their first Ligue 1 match of the season against Strasbourg. For those lucky supporters present, it will scarcely be possible to Dream Bigger.