When Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid for Juventus in the summer of 2018, it appeared to signal the end of his decade-long rivalry with Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi. The pair not only vied for the biggest club prizes while also captaining their respective countries, but they also smashed through records and took it in turns to be crowned the world’s best player.
Since then, there have been several hints that the nemeses could revive their rivalry in Italy. First it was Ronaldo who called Messi to join him in Serie A, challenging him to leave Barca for pastures new. The 32-year-old followed up with the admission that he ‘wished’ the No 7 still played his football in Spain. That is where Inter could come in.
Massimo Moratti set aside €150m to sign Leo in the summer of 2006, when he was still just a teenager, but the Argentine rejected the transfer. However, the former Inter owner bears no bitterness and still harbours hopes of seeing Messi wear the Nerazzurri jersey one day, alluding to that in not one but two interviews over the past week.
“I don’t think it’s a forbidden dream at all. Messi is at the end of his contract and it would certainly be attempted. Knowing Steven Zhang’s courage, he will certainly have thought about it. After all, Messi’s contract is due to expire in 2021. It’d be wonderful, giving back some vitality to Serie A as a whole and more hope to Inter.”
Indeed, Messi’s contract expires next year and there have been signs that his relationship with Barca is beginning to strain. Earlier this year, the forward hit out at Blaugrana sporting director Eric Abidal after he suggested the players had downed tools for coach Ernesto Valverde, who was sacked in January following a poor run of form.
And only last month, Messi called out unnamed figures from ‘within the club’ who leaked to the press that his teammates did not want to take pay cuts for the remainder of the coronavirus pandemic. While his commitment to the Catalans’ cause appears unwavering, it is his rapport with Josep Maria Bartomeu and co. that could trigger an exit.
In turn, Barca are desperate to land Inter striker Lautaro Martinez. Despite his undoubted potential, Lautaro is not and never will be Messi and any opportunity of signing his countryman simply cannot be passed up, even if it means the Beneamata giving up their current No 10, along with his €111m release clause.
Of course, a move to the blue half of San Siro would allow him to go toe-to-toe with Ronaldo again and truly reassert Serie A’s status as a leading league on the world stage. And if Calciopoli didn’t stoke the fires between Juve and Inter enough, then two of football’s GOATs representing each side of the divide will.
That’s not to say, however, that the idea of Messi joining Inter isn't the stuff of make-believe. For a start, he is the world’s best-paid footballer - earning around €70m a season from Barca before tax - and it’ll take a lot more than a few disagreements with Bartomeu’s board to pry him away from the club that continues to provide for his every whim.
There is no disputing Suning Group’s financial clout, but there is its ability to remain sustainable at its current levels at a time when the global economy faces deep recession. That, coupled with a need to comply with Financial Fair Play, makes Moratti’s pipedream exactly what it is if the Nerazzurri were to splash out.
Despite that, Suning could benefit from the ‘Growth Decree’ – essentially Italy’s version of the ‘Beckham Law’ – which sees foreign arrivals liable to pay tax on only 50 percent of their salaries. That half of Messi’s hypothesised salary would be taxed at a rate of 43%, giving the Beneamata more leeway in their negotiations with the forward.
On balance, Inter seem to be the likeliest other European team Leo would consider, especially now they are set for another season of Champions League football, and he may be tempted to tap into his Italian lineage and turn out for a club known for its rich Argentine tradition before heading back home. In these trying times, it’s okay to dream.