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Would You Trade Lionel Messi for Anyone?

In the midst of a relatively slow transfer season, a fantastical rumor inspired us to imagine what an American-style deal to acquire Leo might look like

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It wouldn’t be silly season if there weren’t some truly silly transfer rumors floating around world football, and this one—suggesting Inter Milan are prepared to trigger Lionel Messi’s release clause—certainly qualifies. Of course, we don’t buy that Leo is actually leaving Barcelona to join Cristiano Ronaldo in Serie A (although, never say never), but the prospect of a Messi move inspired the following question: If trades were more common in soccer, what would be an acceptable package to acquire Barça’s no. 10?

Chris Ryan: I’m offering Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, and Roberto Firmino from Liverpool. Barcelona already likes buying Liverpool’s best players, so let’s just rip the Band-Aid off. You gotta kill your darlings. As a Liverpool fan, I would hate to see three beloved attackers, perfectly molded to play Jürgen Klopp’s style, head off to La Liga—especially because the trio were bought for less than 112 million pounds in the transfer market and would certainly fetch double that on the open market. The three of them are hitting their prime, and if Salah continues at his amazing pace, he could be in the “Next Messi” conversation. Hard to say goodbye to all that. On the other hand? Lionel Messi. You could put him in an attack with Daniel Sturridge and an orange traffic cone and it would be awesome.

Michael Baumann: The thing about trading Messi is there’s only one of him, and nobody wants to be the guy who got rid of the best player. This is why the Angels are never going to trade Mike Trout. Furthermore, Barcelona’s rich enough—and has a deep enough squad—that they wouldn’t stand to gain too much by attempting a Herschel Walker–style trade to fill holes elsewhere. The only reason to trade Messi is that he’s 31, and if you could get someone almost as good but much younger, and with room to improve, I’d think about it. Right now, the only person who fits that bill is 19-year-old Kylian Mbappé, and even then, Mbappé wouldn’t be able to fit right into Messi’s playmaking role. Neymar’s a closer like-for-like fit, but he’s already 26, and he’s not as good, to say nothing of his complicated relationship with Barcelona. If I were running Barcelona and PSG offered Mbappé, it’d at least pique my interest. Otherwise, it’d take two absolutely world-class youngsters (perhaps a Manchester City combination of Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus?). Or I’d just hang up the phone.

Ryan O’Hanlon: My no. 1 rule as hypothetical director of football: If God is on your team, don’t trade him. Messi is the unique player of the modern era—perhaps of any era. At 31, he’s a few years removed from his prime, and yet he’s coming off of a season in which he led La Liga in shots, chances created, completed dribbles, and goals, and tied for the lead in assists. You need a whole team to replace that. Plus, the dude plays for freaking Barcelona; there are only a handful of players in the entire world good enough to improve the guys around Messi. So, allow me to interrogate the premise of this exercise and expand its scale: If Barcelona were given first right of refusal on every American-born soccer player from now until the Earth gets engulfed by the sun in exchange for immediately terminating Messi’s contract, would they do it? I’m not so sure.

Donnie Kwak: It’s an interesting thought exercise because Messi’s current trade value—on the heels of both an underwhelming World Cup and his 31st birthday—is probably lower than it’s been in over a decade. Here’s my Manchester United proposal: Paul Pogba, David de Gea, and any two of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, and Anthony Martial. Barca could then deploy Pogba in his preferred advanced position alongside Philippe Coutinho behind Luis Suárez, and also add to their ridiculous abundance of pacey wingers. Meanwhile, United will go down in history as the only team to have featured both Messi and Ronaldo—and we can all finally find out whether Leo can do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke Burnley.

Kevin Clark: Any and all deals for Messi MUST involve Mbappé or Neymar or both. Let’s make that clear. But if there was some fantasy scenario in which he had to be shipped for players and it couldn’t be to PSG, the answer would probably be Tottenham Hotspur, and it would be costly. Harry Kane (value according to Transfermarkt: 135 million pounds) and Dele Alli (90 million pounds) is a good start. Christian Eriksen, worth 72 million pounds, is the next-highest-valued Spurs player and including him makes the deal quite rich. So in this fantasy scenario, I’d start with the first two and see if Barça hangs up. It’s probably a trade both teams would hate and would cause general confusion and fury among all football fans worldwide, which means it will probably happen.

Paolo Uggetti: I would love to entertain this question for the sake of content. I really would. But c’mon. There’s no sensible return for Messi. Sure, on paper, you could mock up a package that Barcelona would be hard-pressed to turn down, especially given the fact Messi is 31. But it’s not so much about getting a fair return as it is about what Barcelona would be giving up. Messi is team lore, a phenomenon that makes their team not just tick, but win, and he’s as much a piece of their history as the Blaugrana colors themselves. I’m sure there will be a day when Messi departs Camp Nou, but I highly doubt it will be because Barça has decided to get rid of him for something younger and better.

Shaker Samman: Chelsea’s website currently lists 27 players who the club sent out on loan last season, headlined by youngsters like Kurt Zouma, Baba Rahman, Matt Miazga, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. That list doesn’t even include Michy Batshuayi or Marco van Ginkel, who were sent off to Dortmund and PSV Eindhoven, respectively. Added together, all of the footballers the West London club have out on loan are likely worth a pretty penny, but it doesn’t come close to the value of Lionel Messi. So what if we expand our focus? To win Leo from Barça, Chelsea is prepared to offer the services of every single player they’ve ever loaned out.

That’s right, every single one. Juan Cuadrado, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Mohamed Salah, Daniel Sturridge, Thorgan Hazard, Nemanja Matic, Hernán Crespo, and Thibaut Courtois are just some of the big names. Take them all. And sure, Chelsea may not technically own the rights to most of those players, and a swap of this magnitude hasn’t happened in any sport, let alone soccer, but this deal—one sending scores of footballers to Barcelona in return for a 31-year-old demigod—is about as likely to happen as the Catalan giants ever selling Messi in the first place. So why not go big with it? Leo would look great in blue.