Four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi linked up with Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba on Saturday to lay the first stone at a future Africa Cup of Nations venue.
The Barcelona star, who won a treble of Spanish title, Copa del Rey and European Champions League last season, officially started the building process at the Port-Gentil stadium, which will host Africa Cup of Nations matches in 2017.
The ceremony took place on a wide sandy ground where the stadium will be built.
It was the Argentine forward’s first visit to Gabon and he signed autographs on team jerseys worn by his fans, before proceeding with the laying of the first stone, accompanied by the president.
“When I was in Barcelona a few years ago, I met Messi who had told me that he would come to visit me in Libreville,” said the Gabon president.
“It’s a promise he made me. He is a man of honour who just kept his word.”
The new stadium will have a capacity of 20,000 and is expected to host matches from November 2016 in the build-up to the tournament.
Port Gentil is Gabon’s second city.
With Barcelona flying out to the US for the pre-seaon tour last weekend, Leo Messi made a surprise visit to Gabon, having been given extended holidays by manager Luis Enrique.
Messi was invited out to Gabon to lay the first stone at a future Africa Cup of Nations venue, which he did dressed in a casual pair of denim shorts and t-shirt, which rather contrasted with the formal wear of the Gabonese politicians.
But comedic effect aside, the controversy had nothing to do with Messi’s get-up, but the financial reward he earned for the visit: according to France Football, the four-time Ballon D’Or was paid 3.5m Euros by Ali Bongo in exchange for his brief presence on Gabonese soil.
As well as the obscene amount of money paid for a simple visit, the sight of Messi being chauffeur-driven by Bongo around the streets of Libreville did not go down at all well with the local residents.
France Football claim that the entire charade was arranged by Messi’s former teammate Samuel Eto’o, who enjoys a close relationship with Bongo.