FOOTBALL’S richest clubs have received encouragement in their pursuit of Lionel Messi after Barcelona coach Luis Enrique fuelled speculation that the four-time world player of the year wants a transfer.
Chelsea have emerged as frontrunners to strike a deal that would likely more than double the current record fee of £86m, paid by Real Madrid to Tottenham in 2013 for Wales winger Gareth Bale.
Enrique has been plagued by claims of a falling-out with Messi, having left the Argentina playmaker out of the starting XI at the weekend, and did little to quell the rumours yesterday.
“I’m not the right person to answer that,” the Barca coach replied when asked whether Messi was happy at the Catalan club. “I don’t want to comment on that, we know things can change.”
Reports in Spain say Messi, 27, is unhappy with the domineering approach of former Barca and Spain midfielder Enrique, leading to fears that he could demand a move if the impasse is not resolved.
Senior players such as Xavi and Andres Iniesta are thought to have attempted to build bridges between the pair, but club president Josep Bartomeu was adamant yesterday that Enrique is staying.
“Luis Enrique is re-doing the team. He is working and there is no doubt he is the right person to be where he is,” said Bartomeu.
Messi was accused of hinting at interest in joining Chelsea this week when he followed the London club and several Blues players on social media platform Instagram.
It came hours after he missed Barca’s open training session for fans on Monday, and followed claims of a confrontation with Enrique last week that preceded his omission from Sunday’s defeat to Real Sociedad.
Bartomeu insisted that Messi, who joined the club as a 13-year-old and has helped them win every major honour, remained happy and insisted he would see out his existing contract.
“Messi has a contract until 2018, he is happy with the club and wants to win more titles. There is nothing to panic about in that regard,” he added.
“Messi is the central figure. The team is built around him. The whole footballing world knows that Barca don’t want to sell Messi. For me he is the best player in the world.”
Barcelona could demand up to £196m (€250m) for Messi if they hold him to his release clause, though may be tempted to do business for less if the player were to demand a switch.
Academics this week estimated Messi’s market value at £172m, while it is likely clubs would need to fund a more lucrative salary than his current £16m income.
Over a five-year contract it is likely that Messi would cost would-be buyers around £275m, when transfer fee, wages and commission for agents are factored in.
Paris Saint-Germain have a long-standing interest in signing him, while Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barca’s bitter rivals Real Madrid are among the few other clubs who could countenance a bid.
Chelsea have deep pockets due to the support of billionaire owner Roma Abramovich, but European financial fair play rules, which restrict the amount clubs may spend to a rough approximation of the revenue they generate, would appear to make it harder for them to buy Messi than their rivals among Europe’s elite.
ON YOUR MARKS: WHO COULD BUY THE STAR?
They have deep pockets and Messi hinted at interest in joining Cesc Fabregas at Chelsea by following the club on Instagram
Rich though they are, they do not have the financial might of some rivals and would need extra revenue or several big-money sales annually to afford him
Enormous revenue-generating potential rooted in their worldwide appeal and harnessed by slick commercial operation
Others – Chelsea, where he has friends, and Bayern, who boast former mentor Pep Guardiola – may have more pull
German powerhouse are certainly rich enough and would offer chance to resume successful relationship with manager Guardiola
Bayern tend to buy mainly homegrown talent from within the Bundesliga (but would surely make an exception) and league is less of a draw than others
Qatar-owned PSG could shower Messi with cash and offer almost guaranteed domestic success
Cannot afford further FFP breaches and French league is seen as lower standard than England, Spain or Germany