Paris Saint-Germain's relationship with Lionel Messi is set to end after two underwhelming years following the French champions' decision to suspend the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner for going on an unauthorised trip to Saudi Arabia.
Greeted as a hero by adoring supporters when he arrived in Paris from Barcelona in August 2021, Messi was supposed to be the man to deliver PSG elusive Champions League success.
It has not worked out and some of those fans had recently turned against a player they see as a symbol of all the club have done wrong in focusing on superstar signings while failing to build a genuinely competitive team.
Having at one point looked set to secure Messi's signature for another season, the Qatar-owned club briefed a month ago that the player was now "much more likely" to depart at the campaign's end when his contract expires.
On Wednesday, football journalist Fabrizio Romano said that there are "no doubts" that the Argentina captain will depart when his contract expires.
"Leo's father Jorge communicated the decision to PSG already one month ago," said the reporter, who is considered to be one of the authorities on football transfers.
The final straw
This week's events are surely the final straw.
Messi, who will be 36 in June, played in PSG's insipid 3-1 home defeat by Lorient in Ligue 1 on Sunday. He then travelled to Saudi Arabia to fulfil commitments as part of a contract with the country's tourist office.
As a result Messi missed a training session pencilled in for Monday following the weekend defeat.
PSG acted swiftly to punish Messi, despite his status as one of the sport's greats. He has been suspended even though PSG still need points to retain the French title with five matches left this season.
A source with knowledge of the disciplinary procedure told AFP that Argentina's World-Cup winning captain would be sidelined for "several days." Various media in France reported he would be suspended for two weeks.
"He cannot train, cannot play, and will not be paid while disciplinary measures are in place," the source added.
Hours later the Saudi tourist board issued a press release to celebrate Messi's visit and detail his "jam-packed itinerary" which included feeding a herd of gazelles.
"Messi's visit to Saudi was packed with exciting activities, with something for everyone in the family," it said.
Meanwhile his teammates were back on the training ground in Paris after suffering a sixth defeat in 17 Ligue 1 matches in 2023.
Is Barcelona return possible?
That Messi should miss training to fly instead to Saudi Arabia could be seen as especially embarrassing for PSG's owners given recent frictions between Qatar and its Gulf neighbour.
Saudi Arabia imposed a diplomatic blockade on Qatar in 2017 along with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, although a reconciliation accord was sealed in January 2021 and the countries have since renewed relations.
The front page of Wednesday's edition of French sports daily L'Équipe carried images of Messi and PSG's Qatari president Nasser al-Khelaifi. "The Break-up" read the headline.
When Messi was unveiled by PSG, he said winning another Champions League title was his "dream" and that he thought he was in "the ideal place" to do it.
Yet it turns out that adding an ageing Messi to an attack already containing Kylian Mbappé and Neymar is not a recipe for European success. With Messi, PSG have suffered consecutive exits from the Champions League in the last 16.
They did win Ligue 1 last season and are on course to do so again this year, even if they limp towards the finish line.
Messi scored just 11 goals in a difficult first season in Paris as he digested his departure from Barcelona. He has contributed 20 in all competitions this season and is also the leading assist-provider in Ligue 1.
The Rosario-born star has developed a good understanding with Mbappé but there have only been glimpses of him at his very best.
PSG's chances of winning the Champions League will not be diminished by losing Messi, but it remains to be seen where the player himself goes next.
Barcelona have made no secret of their desire to bring him back, yet the Catalans' ongoing financial issues cast doubt on their ability to make a deal happen.
There are no other obvious options available to Messi in Europe, meaning he may have to consider a move elsewhere.
– TIMES/AFP [Reporting by Andy Scott]