They really thought they had him. Until the very last moment the strong expectation in Saudi Arabia was that Lionel Messi would choose them. How could he possibly say no, senior sources in the Pro League reasoned? This was the most lucrative offer in all sports, stars as bright as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante had already been lured with less than the €1 billion over two years that was on the table for the Argentine.

Such was their confidence that one senior source in the Pro League revealed to CBS Sports that Al Hilal had jets waiting in Paris for Messi and Barcelona for his father Jorge, ready to whisk him off to Riyadh. The nation stood ready for what would have been the crowning moment in a week where the sporting map has been redrawn around Saudi Arabia. First LIV Golf’s triumphant merger with the PGA tour, then securing the greatest football of his generation, perhaps any generation.

Within an hour of the revelation that the Saudis were standing by, news broke that the great man seemed to have made his decision. Messi would be taking his talents to South Beach.

That brings with it significant complicating factors for Messi and his relationship with the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s wooing of the 35-year-old star had been no less sustained than that of MLS. Figures at the highest level of the government had been involved in talks with Messi and his representatives in Paris over the weekend. Their biggest selling point had been cash —  and lots of it — but they were prepared to hand the Argentine whatever other freedoms he wanted within the footballing structure. Pick his club? Of course. The same was true of teammates, with Public Investment Fund (PIF) officials making their way across Europe trying to snare the biggest stars of the sport. There would even, one source indicated, have been a €25 million bonus for Jorge Messi on completion of the transfer.

Adding to confidence in the Pro League was the fact that their country was already tied to Messi. He may have a home in Miami but he is contracted to the Saudi Tourism Authority, who he signed up with in 2022. There are doubts now as to whether that arrangement will continue given his very public snubbing of the chance to live in Riyadh for the next two years. Indeed this may yet cause further friction between Messi and Saudi Arabia, one source described the leaked suggestion that the player had made the decision because his family did not want to live in the city as “a major red line that has been crossed” by a paid ambassador of the country.

For Saudi football, Messi’s decision is a significant blow but not one that will slow momentum as they chase the biggest names they can get. The PIF delegation that spoke to Messi traveled on to London, where the signature of Kante was swiftly secured on a two-year, €200 million deal with the option for a further 12 months. The Frenchman has successfully completed the first part of his medical in London and will travel to Jeddah to finalize his move to Al Ittihad. CBS Sports also revealed on Tuesday that the same offer was to be made to Ilkay Gundogan. Since then Wilfried Zaha, a free agent next month when his Crystal Palace contract expires, has been offered £15 million a year to make the move. CBS Sports can also reveal that Al Ahli president Waleed Muaath traveled to London yesterday in an attempt to secure the signature of Manchester City forward Riyad Mahrez.

Where some of those players end up is a more open question. PIF took majority ownership of four clubs earlier this week — Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli — and had intended to distribute the brightest stars across the quartet whilst helping other sides secure their own big names such as Mahrez. The change in ownership this week did rather skew some deals; Al Nassr had been working on signing Kante for months only for him to be assigned to Saudi champions Al Ittihad. Al Hilal had harbored hopes of signing Ronaldo before Al Nassr swept in, to make amends Messi was earmarked for them and a cross-Riyadh resumption of his great rivalry with the Portuguese forward so long as the Argentine was amenable.

A star will need to be sourced for Al Hilal. No matter the money they have to spend, they will not find one brighter than Messi.

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