The ridiculous story of Man City’s accidental bid for Lionel Messi
Cast your mind back to the summer of 2008.
‘I Kissed A Girl’ by Katy Perry was top of the charts. Gordon Brown was prime minister of the United Kingdom and the era of New Labour was drawing to a close after the financial crash.
Sir Alex Ferguson had built another great Manchester United side, fired to a Premier League and Champions League double by the goals of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.
Manchester City had just finished ninth in the Premier League, ending the season with an 8-1 defeat to Middlesbrough. They qualified for the UEFA Cup by virtue of the fair play table, despite Richard Dunne getting sent off in the shellacking at the Riverside Stadium.
Sven Goran Eriksson was replaced in the dugout by Mark Hughes, a promising young defender by the name of Vincent Kompany was signed from Hamburg and soon enough the controversial Thaksin Shinawatra would sell up to the Abu Dhabi United Group in a move that would reshape European football.
A 21-year-old rising star by the name of Lionel Messi had just won Olympic Gold at the Beijing Olympics. He was soon to be named on the Ballon d’Or podium for the first time and on the cusp of going stratospheric with a starring role in Barcelona’s 2008-09 treble-winning campaign.
Along with future rival Ronaldo, he was the hottest property in world football.
But what if Messi had left Barcelona that summer? What if City had pulled off the signing of the century? This is the story of the ridiculous, bizarre circumstances that led to one of the silliest bids in football history.
Manchester City’s takeover was formally announced on transfer deadline day. The new owners were keen to usher in the new dawn with a marquee signing.
Dimitar Berbatov later revealed that his agent told City to “fuck off” after they attempted to hijack the Bulgarian’s move from Tottenham to Manchester United.
The tale of Robinho thinking he’d signed for United is said to be apocryphal but according to former City CEO Garry Cook, the Brazilian had flown to London to sign for Chelsea before the freshly-minted upstarts swooped in with a better offer.
The new owners had their star signing, but it’s since been revealed that Robinho wasn’t the only big-name star City made a bid for that day.
Pairoj Piempongsant, a former teacher who later served as vice-president of the Thai FA and Shinawatra’s chief of staff when he was prime minister of Thailand, helped facilitate the takeover and played a prominent role in getting the Robinho deal over the line.
The Thai businessman – unbeknownst to himself – had also given the order for City to try and sign Messi.
“Piempongsant was getting heated,” Cook told The Athletic back in 2019.
“The phone was on the table and he was speaking to Paul Aldridge, who had previously been with West Ham and got himself in trouble, and was also part of Thaksin’s world.
“So, picture the scene. There’s Paul with his London accent: ‘Pairoj, you got to tell me what we’re doing, it’s getting out of control.’
“Pairoj was lying on a chaise lounge, getting a massage, and shouting: ‘Yes, yes, yes! Very messy, messy, it’s getting messy.’ Something got lost in translation and – on my daughter’s eyesight, this is the truth – that was misheard as “we’ve got to get Messi.'”
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On Pep Guardiola’s orders, Barcelona had already gotten rid of Deco and Ronaldinho that summer. The prospect of selling their star asset was utterly unthinkable. Not least because their fledgeling coach was already under pressure after starting his tenure with a 1-0 defeat to minnows Numancia.
The idea of City, something of a basket case back then, signing one of the world’s most talented young footballers was ludicrous.
“That was the enduring comedy of Manchester City, I suppose,” Cook added.
“Paul came to me afterwards: ‘Garry, this is getting confusing, I don’t know what we are doing here.’ I said: ‘Put the offer in, let’s see what we come up with.’
“Then Dave Richards called me the next day from the Premier League. ‘Garry, have you put in an offer for Lionel Messi? Seventy million pounds? Are you mad?’
“He said he’d had a call from Barcelona and they wanted to know if it was real. They were saying to Dave that, if it was real, they might have done a deal a few weeks earlier.”
A fork in the road
As Messi winds down his career in Paris, it appears increasingly unlikely we’ll ever get to see the Argentinian icon turn out in the Premier League.
But that 2008 chapter wasn’t the only time that the Argentinian has faced a fork in the road with an option of moving to one of English football’s glamour clubs.
According to the Daily Mail, Messi’s sponsor Adidas were so keen for him to leave Nike-backed Barcelona for Chelsea in 2012 that they offered to pay half of his £210million buyout clause.
Twelve years after City’s bodged bid, Messi reportedly called Guardiola to discuss the possibility of moving to the Etihad before sending the infamous burofax that stated his intention to leave Barcelona. The Catalan club’s hierarchy called his bluff and he ended up staying put for another year before signing for PSG.
So we’ll never quite get the answer to whether Messi could do it on a wet and windy night at Stoke City, but given how he routinely ripped apart the Premier League’s top clubs in the Champions League we can hazard a guess that he’d have probably done alright.
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