MIAMI: 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 Argentinean great revealed his decision in interviews with Spanish newspapers Mundo Deportivo and DiarioSport.
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 club where he spent most of his career, was another possibility but the Spanish club have had their hands tied due to LaLiga’s financial fair play rules.
But in the end, he made the call that surprised many. Messi is joining MLS after parting ways with French champions Paris St Germain. He said in the interviews on Wednesday that some final details still need to be worked out, but that he has made the call to “continue my path” in Miami.
“I made the decision that I’m going to go to Miami,” Messi said. “I still haven’t closed it 100%. I’m still missing a few things, but we decided to go ahead. If Barcelona didn’t work out, I wanted to leave Europe, get out of the spotlight and think more about my family.”
Messi, who led Argentina to World Cup glory in Qatar in December and has earned a record seven Ballon d’Or awards, won the Ligue 1 title in his two seasons with PSG as well as the French Super Cup in 2022.
“After winning the World Cup and not being able to go to Barca, it was time to go to the US league to experience football in a different way and enjoy the day-to-day,” Messi said.
“Obviously with the same responsibility and desire to want to win and to always do things well. But with more peace of mind.”
The football world was eagerly awaiting Messi’s decision after PSG confirmed this week the playmaker, widely considered the best player in the history of football, was departing.
The romance of a Barca return and prospect of eye-watering riches in Saudi Arabia fell by the wayside as Messi opted to join MLS, with Miami a city he has holidayed in on previous occasions.
“If it had been a question of money, I would have gone to Saudi Arabia or elsewhere,” said Messi. “It seemed a lot of money and the truth is that my decision went another way and not for money.”
Inter Miami, co-owned by former England international David Beckham and founded in 2018, sacked coach Phil Neville last week with the team bottom of the Eastern Conference. Some reports say key MLS sponsors including Adidas and Apple TV, who own the league’s domestic broadcasting rights, may be contributing to his deal.
Messi, who turns 36 later this month, is now set to finish his club career outside the spotlight of top-level European football.
Messi said he would have loved to return to Barca but was afraid that the financial complications which stopped the Catalan club extending his deal in 2021 would interfere again.
“I really wanted to come back, I was really looking forward to it,” continued Messi.
“But, on the other hand, after having lived through what I lived through, after the exit I had… I didn’t want to go through the same situation again and have to wait to see what was going to happen. I didn’t want to leave my future in the hands of others. Somehow, I wanted to make my own decision for myself, for my family.”
Messi said he plans to live in Barcelona again in the future and be involved with his former side in some way. “I don’t know at what moment and when, but hopefully I can return one day to contribute something to the club,” he said.
Before that, though, Messi will give the growth of football in the United States another jolt of momentum with his arrival, which comes just three years ahead of the 2026 World Cup being co-hosted in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The move is also a big win for MLS, which welcomed Messi while adding that work remained to finalise the details of the formal agreement.
“The (goat) is coming,” MLS tweeted, with a goat animal emoji standing in for the phrase “greatest of all time”. “Millions of MLS fans all over the world welcome you, Leo.”
Messi will have his work cut out in Miami, however, with the club at rock bottom of the Eastern Conference standings — six points from ninth place, the final spot which would give them a chance of qualifying for the playoffs.
Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2023