Lionel Messi: Why only Man Utd and Real Madrid can afford to buy him
The football rumour mill has gone into overdrive recently with reports that Lionel Messi wants to leave Barcelona following a fallout with coach Luis Enrique.
The Argentine maestro did little to end the feverish speculation with some contradictory statements over his future. After inspiring his team to a 3-1 win against Atletico Madrid on Sunday, Messi claimed that the transfer talk linking him to Chelsea or Manchester City was "all lies."
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On Monday, at the FIFA Ballon d'Or ceremony in Zurich, Messi responded, when asked whether he would be interested in playing at another club: "Only God knows the future. Things in football can change overnight."
With reports suggesting that Messi could command a transfer fee of 200 million pounds and an annual salary of around 20 million pounds, we take a look at what it would take to pull off the most expensive transfer in the history of the game, and just who could afford him?
Who could buy Messi?
Sky Andrew, one of Britain's leading football agents, says there are five clubs who could secure Messi's services and where he might be interested in playing. He told ESPN FC: "Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid are the clubs that have the financial backing and the profile to attract a player of his stature. However, the question they will be asking themselves is 'can we spend 200 million pounds, plus his wages and stay within the financial fair play (FFP) rules?'
Stephen Morrow, senior lecturer in sports finance at Stirling University, insists that it will take clubs with more than just deep pockets to land Messi. He said: "Any club that signs Messi will need to have recurring football income to cope with the cost of buying him. So of these five clubs, only Manchester United and Real Madrid have diversified income streams.
"Unlike Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG, they are not reliant on benefactor-owners and raise significant revenue through sponsorship, television and other commercial deals.
"Manchester United and Real Madrid are in prime position because of their business model and financial structure that provides them with the additional income required to stay within FFP limits and sign Messi."
Morrow, however, warns: "Given his standing at Barcelona, you can't really see him going to Madrid. So that only leaves Manchester United who could financially cope with signing Messi and maintain the FFP limit."
What would a deal for Messi look like?
Andrew believes that a deal involving Messi could take up to six months to negotiate and would have to be carefully structured. He said: "In this current market, I don't think there is a club that would pay the transfer fee in one single payment.
"The only way you can do this deal is by staggered payments over the course of his contract or even longer. You could have a player on a six-year contract but the transfer fee is paid over 10 years. As long as two clubs agree to this, it can be done."
Andrew envisages a player- or players-plus-cash deal for Messi and therein may lie the problem (aside from the fact the Catalans can't sign anyone until 2016). He said: "If you look at the clubs that could conceivably buy Messi, which of their players would interest Barcelona? I don't think Barcelona need any of the high-profile players at these clubs and many of them have already played for them before."
Once again, Morrow believes that the Red Devils have the edge over their rivals. He said: "Manchester United have substantial cash reserves compared to the other big clubs that might consider buying Messi, so this would be a huge advantage.
"Barcelona would obviously prefer a one-off payment but given the magnitude of the figures involved, this may be difficult even for United but they are in the best position to pay a significant part of the transfer fee in one go. Their kit deal alone with Adidas, which starts next year, will earn them 750 million pounds over a decade."
What would Chelsea, Manchester City or PSG have to do to secure Messi and stay within the FFP limits?
Raise more revenue from sponsorship and other commercial deals, which would be a real possibility, given his profile, and these clubs will be confident of increasing their coffers should they secure him. But they will have to be careful. FFP stipulates that clubs cannot do deals with companies that are connected to club owners.
PSG's 167 million-pound shirt deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority, for example, was deemed unfair by UEFA because of the organisation's links with the club's Qatari owners, leading to a 20 million-pound fine.
For the two Premier League clubs, future television income could also play a big part. The current deal for the broadcasting of top-level English football finishes in 2015-16, and according to some reports, a new deal could be worth an estimated 4 billion pounds, earning each club over 100 million pounds per season just for staying in the league. They could receive even more depending on where they finish.
Morrow said: "Manchester City in particular are changing their business model to raise more revenue from football-related activities, but it's going to take a while to have an effect."
How would Manchester United and Real Madrid fund a Messi deal?
Despite faltering on the pitch, United remain strong off it. In addition to securing the lucrative Adidas deal and a shirt sponsorship deal with Chevrolet, worth almost 50 million pounds over the next five years (albeit contingent on them reaching the UCL), executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has focused on increasing commercial income. Deals have included partnerships with a Japanese diesel engine manufacturer, a wine producer and a savoury snack company. Last year, United's overall revenue and commercial income increased by 24 percent.
Add to this money from a new Premier League television deal, a global fan base of 659 million and future commercial deals, and United have the financial muscle to land Messi.
Real Madrid last year posted record revenue of 480 million pounds. From television alone they earned almost 110 million pounds, because La Liga has no collective agreement and the big clubs are free to negotiate their own deals.
Two years ago they also signed a new shirt deal with Emirates that was 30 percent more lucrative and have also announced plans to redevelop the Bernabeu, which would increase commercial opportunities and led to rumours of a lucrative naming-rights deal.
There is little doubt that Madrid could afford Messi, but the big question remains: would he want to do a Figo and make the leap to the Spanish capital?
Vivek Chaudhary is a journalist who writes for The Independent and other leading media. Twitter: @viveksport