Greg Cote: Messi to Miami the seismic exclamation on South Florida’s single greatest sports week ever

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — The long, long-awaited dream has become real. The Powerball lottery. The motherlode. The Holy Grail. Call it what you will. Miami has just won it.

Lionel Messi.

He is not less than a futbol deity, the biggest of sports’ international icons, G.O.A.T. of G.O.A.T.s, and he is ours now.

For most of the past three years “Messi to Miami” had taken on a life of its own, growing by degrees from baseless hope to rumor to speculation to sketchy foreign reports of questionable credibility. It seemed more and more possible by hints and degrees. The gestation has been long, dare say interminable. South Florida soccer fans have been teased and tantalized, but the celebration was always in abeyance, in maybe-someday mode, the cork never leaving the champagne.

Until now.

Wednesday it became as official as it gets: The greatest player ever in the world’s biggest sport is headed to join Inter Miami and Major League Soccer, instantly transforming and lifting a franchise, a league and a sport in America.

And the phrase “What a week!” is officially redefined.

The word came as the Heat prepared to host its first NBA Finals game in Miami in nine years.

Thursday the Florida Panthers will host their first Stanley Cup Final home game in 27 years.

The Marlins are unexpectedly winning. The Dolphins are as promising as they have been in years and years.

It was the best time as is, maybe ever, to be a pro sports fan in Greater Miami.

And now … Messi!

Miami and South Florida have had one other sports moment that felt this seismic.

It was July 8, 2010, when LeBron James announced “The Decision” live on ESPN. He would be “taking my talents to South Beach” and the Miami Heat.

But that was NBA-big. American-sports big.

Messi to Miami is worldwide-big. Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are few burgs on the planet where Messi to Miami will not resonate and likely be met with spirited debate.

Having a lousy fourth season in MLS, Inter Miami’s recent firing of coach Phil Neville had the whiff of a further move to entice Messi. Miami has reportedly had contact with Tata Martino about replacing Neville. Martino is a former manager for both Argentina and Barcelona — Messi’s national team and longtime former club team — and would be thought to have Messi’s blessing as a hire.

His longtime former Barca teammate Sergio Bosquets also might be joining Messi in Miami. The club has been reserving the uniform numbers 10 and 5, the former for Messi and the latter for Bosquets.

Messi is 35, in the winter of an historically fabulous career that has featured seven Ballon d’Or trophies as global player of the year. But he remains as close to his prime as humanly possible, helping Argentina win the World Cup just last summer.

Messi’s contract with Paris Saint-Germain expires June 30, and when he said he would not return, speculation over his future went into overdrive.

He had been considering a return to Barcelona, a move to Miami and a $500 million offer from Saudi club Al Hilal.

It came down to Barca or a foray into MLS, but financially strapped Barcelona did not have the wherewithal to make it work. Inter Miami did, thanks to the creative involvement of the league and its major financial partners including Apple TV and Adidas.

Messi, who owns an oceanfront condo in Miami, saw the city as his natural base in wishing to experience the game in the United States, and MLS commissioner Don Garber was smart enough to put the weight of the league behind Miami’s bid.

That Messi is the biggest get in MLS history is a wild understatement. One of the previous marquee gets had been David Beckham, who arrived in 2007 with MLS’ help and now is a part-owner of Inter Miami along with the Mas brothers.

Messi’s arrival will be boom time for those owners and the franchise’s value. And anybody who owns Inter Miami season tickets is lucky because the price just rocketed north. It will be a seller’s market and demand will be outrageous if you are holding tickets to Messi’s debut with Miami (presumably) later this summer.

Messi himself is expected to reap a deal that includes profit-sharing arrangements with Apple TV and Adidas and a future ownership stake in Inter Miami. It is expected the arrangement also will enable Messi to rejoin Barcelona, perhaps on a low-cost loan, to end his epic career with a ceremonial bow with the club that raised him from age 13.

Meantime Inter Miami hopes to have Messi for the balance of this MLS season and perhaps one or two more years.

The U.S. hosting the Copa America tournament in 2024 and hosting the 2026 World Cup (along with Canada and Mexico) were additional enticements for Messi to make the move to Inter Miami.

The Heat getting LeBron was beyond huge.

South Florida hosting both NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Final this week is historic.

Now, something as big as anything we have had, with three magical words rippling to every corner of the world:

Messi to Miami.