Lionel Messi picks MLS's Inter Miami in a move that stuns soccer after exit from Paris Saint-Germain
By TIM REYNOLDS
MIAMI (AP) 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 on Wednesday 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.
But in the end, he made the call that surprised many. Messi is joining MLS. He said in the interviews Wednesday that some final details still need to be worked out, but that he has made the call to “continue my path” in Miami.
“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.
“We are pleased that Lionel Messi has stated that he intends to join Inter Miami and Major League Soccer this summer,” read a statement from MLS. “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.”
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner - the trophy given annually to the world's best player - 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.
Messi has more than 800 goals in his career for club and country, making him one of the greatest scorers in the sport’s history. In more than 17 years of representing Argentina on the international stage, he has scored 102 goals against 38 different national team opponents - 16 of those goals coming on U.S. soil. He scored twice in last year’s World Cup final against France, a match that ended 3-3 with Argentina prevailing 4-2 on penalty kicks.
He has been to the absolute mountaintop of the game. He is a four-time Champions League winner and his 129 goals in the top club competition are second to Ronaldo's 140. Messi has won 10 La Liga titles and two Ligue 1 championships, seven Copa del Reys and three Club World Cups plus a Copa América and Olympic gold medal for Argentina.
And now he comes to MLS, and a team that is struggling - last place in the Eastern Conference, just a few days removed from the firing of coach Phil Neville (who was hand-picked by Beckham two years ago).
Messi’s decision to play in the U.S. might be the biggest boost ever for American soccer on the pro stage. Some of the game’s biggest names - Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Thierry Henry and Beckham himself - have come to the U.S. toward the end of their careers, but landing a player still no worse than near the pinnacle of his game and just a few months removed from hoisting a World Cup is simply huge.
“This is obviously the biggest signing that they've brought in,” said Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman, a U.S. national team regular. “It's kind of reminiscent of Beckham when he came originally. You saw how the league has kind of changed in the 15 years since he arrived, and hopefully 15 years from now we're seeing all the growth from this addition to the league. I think it's a great thing.
"I think it'll be great for the sport in this country, especially ahead of the 2026 World Cup. And I'm excited to play against him.”
It took months of negotiations with MLS, the Miami ownership, Adidas and even Apple getting involved in a creative pitch to bring Messi to Miami’s pitch. Apple - which is a broadcast partner of MLS - announced Tuesday that it will show a still-untitled four-part documentary series “featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes access to global superstar Lionel Messi. ... In his own words, Messi tells the definitive story of his incredible career with the Argentina national football team, providing an intimate and unprecedented look at his quest for a legacy-defining World Cup victory.”
And now, his story will have a Miami chapter. His move comes in a week when the NBA's Miami Heat and NHL's Florida Panthers are both at home in their respective title series - and the Heat, during Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night, flashed a graphic on their scoreboard welcoming Messi to Miami.
The Heat trailed by 21 points at the time. A few people cheered anyway.
Inter Miami needed six years from inception to playing its first match, and its first four seasons have been less than stellar.
Messi is joining a team that sits last in the Eastern Conference and just fired its coach. It has made the playoffs in two of its first three seasons but has yet to finish a season with a winning record or even a positive goal differential.
Still, there have been hints for months that Miami remained very much in the Messi sweepstakes. Messi met with Inter Miami co-owner Beckham this spring, and that was shared publicly almost to ensure that everyone knew the sides were still talking. Messi and his family also own several pieces of luxury real estate in South Florida, and - almost as if to suggest something big was coming - the MLS club told fans the only way they could get tickets for the second half of this season was to purchase a season-ticket package.
He’s an enormous draw everywhere on the globe, including Miami. Two days after Argentina won the World Cup, Miami Heat guard Kyle Lowry sat on his team’s bench for a game unable to play because of injury. He wore a Messi jersey that night.
Inter Miami still plays home matches in a temporary home in Fort Lauderdale, about 45 minutes north of the site in Miami where the team wants to build a permanent complex.
And even in an area where the population has a serious Latin flavor, and where more people might actually call the sport fútbol than soccer, Inter Miami has struggled to generate the same attention as do the area’s primary pro teams - basketball’s Heat, baseball’s Miami Marlins, football’s Miami Dolphins and hockey’s Panthers.
Messi could change that in an instant. In a flash, he becomes the biggest name in MLS and makes everything Miami does newsworthy. Barcelona released a statement saying Jorge Messi, the player's father, told the club president Joan Laporta of the decision to go to Miami and wished him well.
“President Laporta understood and respected Messi’s decision to want to compete in a league with fewer demands, further away from the spotlight and the pressure he has been subject to in recent years,” the statement from Barcelona said.
His decision ends what has been a wild saga. Barcelona made Messi a superstar, but the financial issues that forced the team to letting him go two years ago still remain an issue.
“I heard that they'd have to sell players or lower players' salaries and the truth is, I didn't want to go through that,” Messi said Wednesday.
There are no financial issues with Saudi Arabia, and speculation that he would end up there intensified when Messi made an unauthorized trip to the kingdom. PSG suspended him and some fans turned on him, serenading him with jeers toward the end of his season with the French club.
Everyone knew he wouldn’t be back with PSG. Few likely thought he was heading to Miami. But here he is, a move to Miami by a superstar that might even be more shocking than LeBron James arriving to join the Heat 13 years ago.
AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York contributed to this report.
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Updated June 7, 2023