Could the best player in the world really move to Inter?
Almost as crazy, you might say, as the initial reports two years ago that Cristiano Ronaldo was about to join Juventus. Yet, in reality, the prospects of Messi re-joining his eternal rival in Italy are not too far-fetched.
Indeed, after Manchester City, the San Siro is Messi’s likeliest destination should he follow through with his intention to quit Barcelona.
The 33-year-old has long been Inter’s dream signing. Former president Massimo Moratti repeatedly tried to buy Messi when he was a teenager, something the Argentine has never forgotten.
And the club’s current Chinese owners, Suning Holdings Group, have never hidden their desire to bring Messi to Italy’s fashion capital.
This was demonstrated only last month when Chinese streaming service PPTV, which is owned by Suning, projected a shadow of Messi on Milan’s iconic Duomo cathedral to advertise Inter’s Serie A game with Napoli.
The initial plan was to wait for Messi’s contract at Camp Nou to expire and make a big push for his signature on a Bosman in 2021.
However, Tuesday’s dramatic developments now open up the possibility that Leo could depart immediately. If he does, the big question will be whether he commands a transfer fee (his release clause is set at €700 million) that scares off all Interested parties, including Inter.
Messi is arguing that due to the coronavirus outbreak extending the 2019/20 season, the free transfer clause which expired at the end of May can still be executed.
Financially, Suning can fund a Bosman transfer if they really wanted to, despite Messi’s astronomical salary of just under €100m gross a season.
Their owner Zhang Jindong is worth around €8 billion and has made huge investments on the transfer market, splashing out €160 million on new players in the past year alone.
This summer, Antonio Conte had been told that Inter would need to tighten their belts more. They have already captured Achraf Hakimi for €40m and will certainly add Italian wonderkid Sandro Tonali (on loan with a forced option to buy for €35m), a left wing-back and probably a centre-back to their ranks. Conte is also hoping for an aggressive centre midfielder and a backup No. 9 to Romelu Lukaku.
But in order to balance the books, Inter will have to sacrifice at least one of Milan Skriniar or Marcelo Brozovic, in addition to outcasts Ivan Perisic, Radja Nainggolan, Joao Mario and the already departed Mauro Icardi.
So, Messi wasn’t originally catered for in the plan for this summer but Suning’s economic power and their desire to sign the Barca legend could override that.
The current tax laws in Italy are far more favourable to foreign footballers than they are in England, or Spain for that matter. In Italy, newly resident workers from abroad are given a tax exemption covering 50 per cent of their salaries.
This means that if Messi earns a €100m gross salary, he will only be taxed on €50m of it. With a top rate tax of 43 per cent, Messi’s tax bill would be just €21.5m.
Thus, financially, Italy is a far more enticing destination than England or Spain, countries that tax 45% on high earners - more than double the effective tax rate in Serie A.
Furthermore, AS reports that tax exemption for foreign workers in Italy can be increased to 90% of salary if the person has three or more minor children (which Messi does).
Messi’s father Jorge has already taken advantage of these favourable tax laws by buying property in Milan’s Porta Nuova district just a few weeks ago. There have since been reports that Leo has followed suit with his own penthouse apartment, further fuelling talk of an Inter transfer.
Certainly, a move to Inter would lead to a surge of Interest in Serie A. Messi and Ronaldo going head-to-head once again at Italy’s two best and bitterest rivals would bring back all the neutrals that have been lost during the league’s decade-long decline.
Quite how Leo would fit in tactically at Inter is another question altogether. Aside from the fact Lautaro Martinez (a confirmed Barcelona target) would likely lose his first-team place, Messi and Conte are not an obvious marriage made in heaven. The Italian is an ideologue, who rarely strays from his rigid 3-5-2 formation.
He demands a gruelling intensity and workrate - both in offensive and defensive phases – from every one of his players. He is also obsessive when it comes to drilling each player tactically and is not known to offer special treatment to anyone, as shown by the way he often sidelined Juventus legend Alessandro Del Piero in his first season as coach in Turin.
Messi is not renowned for his hard work and running off the ball, nor for his tactical and positional discipline. Quite how Leo will respond to Conte ranting and raving, and rudely swearing ‘porca troia’ when Messi fails to press a Benevento centre back remains to be seen.
But the magic Messi would bring to Inter – and Serie A as a whole – is something that has Calcio disciples dreaming. No one believed Ronaldo would sign for Juventus in 2018, so why can’t Messi join him?