BARCELONA • When Barcelona confirmed they had received a request from Lionel Messi's lawyers informing them that he wanted to terminate one of football's longest-standing relationships, the owners of Europe's biggest clubs would have raised a collective eyebrow.
It was akin to the Mona Lisa suddenly becoming available on the art market, such is his status in the game despite the fact that he is 33.
Already the usual suspects are being lined up as his next club with, not surprisingly, a reunion with his former manager Pep Guardiola at Manchester City the most likely scenario, according to the bookmakers.
Messi has made no secret of his admiration for the English top flight and linking up with his mentor seems to be the most logical fit.
Guardiola would surely relish the rekindling of their partnership as he rebuilds a side eclipsed by Liverpool last season.
Barca great Rivaldo told Betfair yesterday that the Argentina skipper would transform City's bid to win a first Champions League title despite becoming football's first billion-dollar team since the Abu Dhabi takeover 12 years ago.
"It will be a sad ending for Messi's story with Barcelona if the things remain this way, but this is football and sometimes things don't run according to our expectations," the former Brazil forward said.
"City could be Messi's best option as his next club... I imagine Guardiola building the rest of his team around Messi. His talent can make the difference any place, any time."
There is also talk of Messi joining forces with Cristiano Ronaldo, his rival as the world's greatest player, at Juventus, although it is hard to see the Italian Serie A champions having both players on their wage bill.
Given his enormous salary - said to be €1 million (S$1.6 million) per week - a more plausible destination would be to join former Barca teammate Neymar at Paris Saint-Germain, another billion-dollar side after the Qatari buyout in 2011.
While Spanish daily Marca yesterday claimed the French champions are not in contention for his signature, coach Thomas Tuchel last Sunday said the Barca captain would be "very welcome" in Paris.
Inter Milan, backed by China's Suning Holdings, could also emerge as dark horses, though The Independent yesterday reported "an agreement will be difficult to reach" due to his wages on top of the world-record fee Barca will demand.
The clamour to land the six-time Ballon d'Or winner has, however, led to plenty of online trolling.
Former Manchester United defender and pundit Rio Ferdinand yesterday jokingly tweeted "Frank Lampard is now in for Messi", referring to Chelsea's aggressive moves in this transfer window.
A-League side Adelaide United yesterday also issued a long-shot bid to entice Messi to join their ranks, touting the city as a coronavirus safe haven for playing and raising his family.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS