Mancity are the closest to sign Messi

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Manchester City emerged as front-runners to sign Lionel Messi on Wednesday and are cautiously confident they can do so without becoming embroiled in the player’s bitter contract dispute with Barcelona.

Messi has told Barcelona of his desire to leave the Nou Camp, with Pep Guardiola hoping for a shock reunion with his former player in Manchester.

Capturing Messi, 33, would represent the biggest coup of the Sheik Mansour era but the club are aware that his acrimonious departure makes the operation difficult.

Messi believes his contract allows him to leave for free but Barcelona are adamant that suitors will have to pay a fee. Messi’s release clause is £635million.

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City could obtain permission from FIFA to sign Messi on a free, pending an investigation into his contract wrangle, but risk the verdict ultimately ruling in Barcelona’s favour.

But there is hope that the player will resolve his dispute with Barcelona out of court in the coming days. Argentina’s TyC Sports reported last that he intends to attend the club’s first pre-season session on Monday.

Even without a transfer fee, the financial might required is huge. Messi’s annual salary at Barcelona is £64m, with loyalty and performance-related bonuses taking the package towards £95m.

The forward would need to accept some form of pay cut, although a move could in part be financed by the re-negotiation of City’s existing commercial contracts to the tune of millions.

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Sportsmail has been told that City would possess the option of implementing a ‘Messi tax’ to deals signed by any of their 42 global and regional partners, which would see them ask for more money in return for Messi as part of the branding.

‘It could be that you come up with a deal which is generous by the club’s standards but is geared towards intellectual property rights,’ said football finance expert Kieran Maguire.

‘They’d be signing a player who effectively transcends the sport — think Tiger Woods in golf, Michael Jordan in basketball.’

Given the make-up of the City Football Group, it was suggested that chief executive Ferran Soriano could offer a longer deal on lower wages, with the chance for Messi to end his career at one of City’s sister clubs.

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