Lionel Messi has pulled off his latest stunning feat: He is headed to Major League Soccer, and joining Inter Miami.
After months — years, even — of speculation, Messi finally revealed his decision to join a Miami franchise that has been led by another global soccer icon, David Beckham, since its inception but has yet to make any real splashes on the field.
That likely will soon change. One of Inter Miami’s owners, Jorge Mas, tweeted out a photo of a darkly silhouetted Messi jersey shortly before the Argentinian great revealed his decision in interviews with Spanish news outlets Mundo Deportivo and Sport.
It was widely believed that Messi eventually would choose to play for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia, following longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo to a nation where some clubs now are funded by the state’s sovereign wealth fund. Going back to Barcelona, a storied franchise where he spent most of his career, was another possibility.
“After winning the World Cup and not being able to return to Barcelona, it was my turn to go to the league of the United States to live football in another way,” Messi said.
He didn’t take the money. He didn’t choose the memories. He picked Miami instead. Messi’s next matches are likely to be exhibitions with Argentina against Australia on June 15 at Beijing and at Indonesia in Jakarta four days later — and then his Inter Miami debut figures to be sometime in July.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner — the trophy given annually to the best player in the world — makes his move after two years with Paris Saint-Germain. At 35, Messi has nothing left to prove in the game and filled the only significant unchecked box on his resume back in December by leading Argentina to the World Cup title.
“We are pleased that Lionel Messi has stated that he intends to join Inter Miami and Major League Soccer this summer,” MLS said in a written statement. “Although work remains to finalize a formal agreement, we look forward to welcoming one of the greatest soccer players of all time to our League.”
After Messi and Inter Miami made their announcements, Barcelona wished the Argentina star “the best of luck in his new professional phase” and said an offer was presented before Messi made the decision to move to MLS.
“Jorge Messi, the player’s father and representative, informed Club President Joan Laporta of the player’s decision to join Inter Miami, despite having been presented with a proposal from Barça, in consideration of the desire of both FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi for him to once again wear blaugrana,” Barca said in a statement.
The Catalan club revealed the intention to work with Messi in the future “to promote a proper tribute from Barça fans to honor a footballer who has been, is, and always will be beloved by Barça.”
The arrival of Messi, 35, promises to be the biggest signing in the 27-year history of MLS, rivaled only by the signing of Beckham.
His signing will also be a major boost for a Miami team that sits bottom of the Eastern Conference and last week dismissed coach Phil Neville.
Messi’s final season in Paris was tumultuous. Though he scored 21 goals and 20 assists in all competitions, helping the team to the Ligue 1 title, PSG again failed to progress beyond the last 16 of the Champions League, the trophy the club covets the most.
At Messi’s final match – as well as in a number of recent games – some PSG fans booed the superstar.
Before his two-season stint with PSG, Messi spent 17 trophy-laden years at Barcelona, where he turned from schoolboy to sporting legend.
Earlier this week, his father had said Messi’s preferred move would be a return to Barcelona.
In a recent interview, Messi said he would continue playing while he’s still enjoying it and, at 35, he has a few more years to give.
The big picture: Messi opts to conquer new ground than revisit his past
And so, he has decided. Major League Soccer has won the Lionel Messi Final Four bracket, defeating Saudi competition in the final after both advanced past romantic long shots: the financially hamstrung Barcelona, where he spent 21 years, and Newell’s Old Boys, the hometown team he supported as a boy.
Messi’s contract with PSG expires at the end of this month, but really, more than a free agent signing, this move is more like a corporate joint venture between Inter Miami, MLS, the league’s broadcast rights holders (Apple), Adidas and the Lionel Andres Messi Corporation. We’ve been here before in 2007, when David Beckham who, as if to prove the circularity of human existence, is a part-owner of Inter Miami) joined the LA Galaxy. And frankly, it would have been pretty much the same thing if he had opted for the Saudi Pro League, except there it would mostly be one source footing the bill: the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
(Indeed, in what to some might appear as a classic cart-before-the-horse move, Messi signed a reported $400 million contract with the Saudi tourism board . Assuming he guaranteed them exclusivity, don’t expect him to be shilling for the delights of South Beach any time soon.)
Maybe it was inevitable that, having finally conquered the World Cup, he would opt to conquer a new world rather than revisit his past, ultimately plumping for North America over the Gulf. Fans in North America should count themselves lucky. Because if you attend the right MLS game, you may be able to one day tell your grandkids that you saw Messi in the flesh. Just like your dad tells you he saw Michael Jordan, your grandfather tells you he saw Muhammad Ali and your great-grandfather tells you he saw Babe Ruth.
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