The star forward has featured only intermittently for his new employers but it has been a different story on the international stage
It says something about the spell-binding appeal of Lionel Messi that even fans of Argentina’s biggest rivals are hoping he takes the field on Friday.
Despite complaints over the cost of tickets for the World Cup qualifier in Montevideo between Uruguay and the Albiceleste, Penarol’s Estadio Campeon del Siglo will likely be packed to the brim when the two sides walk out.
Indeed, no less a figure than Uruguayan FA chief Ignacio Alonso used the Paris Saint-Germain superstar as justification for the rather elevated prices, telling reporters in the build-up to the game: “They are normal for an important match with world-class players, and this could even be Lionel Messi’s last time playing in Uruguay.”
Whether or not Messi would even be available for Friday’s clash had been up in the air all week but it now seems that he will start against the Uruguayans and, if he remains unscathed, also on Tuesday, for Brazil’s visit to San Juan.
That is great news for his adoring public, not just in Argentina but across the entirety of the South American continent, but less so for PSG, who, with some justification, are beginning to feel short-changed.
Messi has made no secret of the fact that leading his national team to the World Cup in a year’s time is his top priority. According to reports he even has that condition written into his PSG contract, in a clause which states that the club must release him for any international game he wishes, regardless of the circumstance.
Since leaving Barcelona in August, the 34-year-old has racked up 450 minutes for Argentina in qualifying (not including that suspended clash against Brazil), compared to just 325 minutes in Ligue 1.
In that same period he netted four goals in international colours, while he is still waiting for his first strike in the French top flight.
Leo has delivered in the Champions League, hitting three times in as many outings as PSG sit on the verge of last-16 qualification, but he was forced to sit out their last clash with a knee injury and Argentina’s subsequent decision to call him up did not amuse anyone at Parc des Princes.
“We don’t agree with letting a player, who isn’t fit to play for us and is in recovery, join up with his national side,” PSG sporting director Leonardo told Le Parisien.
“It doesn’t make sense and this kind of situation needs to be discussed with FIFA.”
It is not a new topic of complaint for the Brazilian, who at the end of October said of Messi: “In these past two months he has spent more time with his national team than here.”
“I have a good relationship with Leonardo, because Walter [Samuel] was his team-mate and spoke to him recently,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni pointed out to reporters when asked of a possible rift with PSG this week.
“Their thing is understandable, because of what’s going on with the FIFA dates and the Copa America, for clubs there are a lot of trips with the national team and that is what is being discussed with FIFA.
“It is totally understandable from PSG, due to their calendar. But there is also no doubt that we are right to call him up and, if available, play him.”
For years clubs have enjoyed dominance over their international counterparts, withdrawing players at the slightest hint of injury and making clear that, as the ones who pay their wages, the clubs should enjoy a privileged position.
Messi thinks otherwise. At this point in his career he has nothing left to prove at club level, whereas the World Cup still looms as his white whale, the prize that has remained just out of reach.
Perhaps just as importantly, he seems happiest when around his Argentina colleagues, forming a stunning rapport with new faces like midfield general Rodrigo de Paul, which seems to have restored his love for the game.
Nobody, furthermore, can accuse the legendary No.10 of not deserving the odd break. In 2020-21, he played exactly 60 games between club and country – completing the 90 minutes in all but three – including that scintillating Copa America campaign, in which he played every single minute for his country.
That would be a heavy workload for any player, let alone a man who is looked to constantly as a match-winner, treated as such by opposing defenders and fouled more often than almost any other footballer on the planet.
That takes a huge physical toll, and yet year upon year Messi has continued to push himself to incredible extremes that defy all logic.
Now, it seems, it is time to take a breather. With 11 wins in 13 games and a 10-point lead PSG are not exactly missing his talents in Ligue 1, and even if he just uses the domestic game to keep sharp, Mauricio Pochettino’s men should by all rights win the title at a canter.
That leaves the Champions League and World Cup as the two crowns the Argentine must really work for, freed of the gruelling need to dig Barcelona out of a hole every week.
He should be in better shape than ever, both physically and psychologically, to do just that.
Seeing a player pick country over club might take some getting used to for PSG, then, but if they can accommodate their star and keep him content with this more limited, well-rested role then both they and Argentina are perfectly placed to reap the benefits, making everyone a winner.