Messi the latest pawn in proxy rivalry in Middle East

May 3, 2023  -Lionel Messi was supposed to be training alongside his Paris Saint-Germain teammates on Monday, with his club embroiled in an increasingly fraught French league title race.

Instead, the soccer great was in Saudi Arabia, holding a falcon on his arm, watching a palm-weaving demonstration and looking around the Arabian Horse Museum as part of his commercial contract with the kingdom to promote tourism in the Middle Eastern country.

It will prove to be an expensive trip for the recent World Cup winner.

Messi has been suspended by PSG — reportedly for two weeks, when he won’t get paid or be allowed to train or play with the team. That could yet spark the end of a turbulent and somewhat underwhelming two-season spell at a club where soap opera-style drama, on and off the field, is rarely far away given the presence of other superstars like Kylian Mbappé and Neymar in the squad.

It also exposes the tensions now that Qatar and Saudi Arabia — gulf neighbors and fierce recent rivals in regional politics — have become major influencers in the world of soccer.

Messi is right in the middle of it all, through his own making and because everyone — inside and outside the game — wants a piece of one of the all-time greats.

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