‘I’m going to Miami’: Soccer legend Lionel Messi says he intends to play for Inter Miami

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI — Lionel Messi is coming to Inter Miami, rejecting a $500 million deal from Saudi Arabia and a sentimental pull to return to FC Barcelona, where he spent the first 21 years of his career. His highly anticipated decision puts to rest an endless trail of rumors that circulated around the world for years and dominated soccer social media the past few weeks.

In an exclusive interview on the Mundo Deportivo website, a Barcelona sports outlet, Messi said he really wanted to go back to FC Barcelona. He was with Barcelona in 2021, but the team’s financial issues forced a trade to Paris Saint-Germain. He didn’t want to see his future up in the air.

“I have taken the decision today that I’m going to Miami,” Messi said in the interview. “I still don’t have it sealed 100%. There are a few things that we are still working on. If it wasn’t going to work out in Barcelona, I wanted to leave Europe, take the focus away from myself and focus more on my family. “

Messi owns a vacation home in South Florida, visits frequently, and has said on several occasions that the idea of playing in the United States and experiencing the Miami lifestyle with his family appeal to him.

The 35-year-old Argentine superstar and reigning World Cup champion instantly becomes the highest paid and highest profile athlete not only in South Florida, but in the entire United States.

Messi ranks No. 2 on Forbes’ Highest Paid Athletes list at $130 million, just behind Cristiano Ronaldo. In 2023 he earned $65 million in salary from Paris Saint Germain and an additional $65 million in endorsements. His sponsorship portfolio includes Adidas, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Gatorade, Hard Rock Café, Louis Vuitton, MasterCard and PepsiCo.

He has 468 million Instagram followers. NBA star LeBron James, by comparison, has 154 million, and Odell Beckham Jr. tops the NFL with 17 million.

Messi has strong emotional ties to FC Barcelona, and the Spanish giant was pushing hard for him to rejoin the club; but the financial package put together by Inter Miami, Major League Soccer and its partners was too difficult to turn down.

The Miami Herald has been reporting for months that Inter Miami’s offer to sign Messi this summer would likely be sweetened by Apple, which last year signed a 10-year $2.5 billion broadcast deal with the league, as well as by MLS, which could offer team ownership incentives as it did with David Beckham in 2007.

The Athletic reported in a story published late Tuesday night that the MLS offer to Messi includes revenue and profit-sharing deals with Apple and Adidas and would “likely include” the option to purchase a percentage of an MLS team upon his end of his time playing in the league.

“Multiple sources involved in or briefed on the high-level league discussions said earlier this week that MLS and Apple have discussed offering Messi a share of the revenue created by new subscribers to the MLS Season Pass, the league’s streaming package,” wrote The Athletic.

Adidas, one of MLS’ biggest corporate sponsors “has prepared its own potential arrangement to entice Messi to the United States … a profit-sharing agreement which would involve the player receiving a cut of any increase in Adidas’ profits resulting from his involvement in MLS.”

Messi, the seven-time winner of the Ballon d’Or trophy as the world’s best player, was heavily courted by Inter Miami while also weighing options in Europe and the Middle East. Messi’s former FC Barcelona teammate and friend Sergio Busquets was also negotiating for a new deal with Miami and other clubs outside Spain.

Both will be out of contract June 30 and announced that they were parting ways with their current clubs.

Among the offers Messi explored were an emotional return to Barcelona, where he spent more than 20 years after joining at the age of 13; a reported $500 million deal with Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal; and the move to Major League Soccer to play for Inter Miami.

Messi and Busquets had been in negotiations with Inter Miami co-owners David Beckham and Miami brothers Jose and Jorge Mas and the club began preparing for their potential summer arrival since the season began. The club reserved jerseys No. 10 and No. 5, the numbers worn by Messi and Busquets.

The club, which plays in 18,000-seat DRV PNK Stadium, suspended single-game home ticket sales until after July 1. Tickets are available only for games through the July 1 matchup against Austin FC. If a fan tries to buy a ticket through the club website/Ticketmaster for later in the season, it says “In the works. Check back!” Other teams have tickets available for the duration of the season.

Messi joins an Inter Miami team that sits in last place in the Eastern Conference with a 5-11-0 record after 16 of 34 games. Phil Neville was fired as head coach last week after four losses in a row, and that run stretched to five with a home loss to D.C. United on Saturday under interim coach Javi Morales. There is also a report that Tat Martino and Inter Miami have reached an agreement in principle for Martino to be the next coach. He coached Messi at Barcelona and the Argentina’s national team and coached Atlanta United to the MLS championship in 2018.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league was doing all it could to assist Miami in landing the deal, which would be massive for the league and its new $2.5 billion partner Apple. The league and Apple aim to expand their global footprint, and having Messi playing in an MLS jersey on Apple TV every week would fulfill that mission.

The league was able to lure English icon Beckham in 2007 with a five-year $32 million deal that included the chance to buy an MLS franchise for a deeply discounted price of $25 million, which he did when he launched Inter Miami in 2014. That turned out to be a wildly profitable investment, as the average MLS franchise is valued at over $500 million in 2023.

Garber, asked by CBS News during a late-April meeting with The Associated Press Sports Editors, said of the Messi-to-Inter Miami talks:

“We will work very hard with Miami, who is the team that is hoping to be able to sign him, to come up with a program for him that will allow him to establish a legacy that I think could be unprecedented globally, let alone unprecedented here in our country because I think of him as someone who crosses so many barriers that he can be bigger than any athlete of any sport that has ever played here in the United States. We have been pretty effective at coming up with clever ways to sign players for our clubs in the right market. It’s very real-time and I hope that we’re able to get in front of the discussion and hopefully bring something over the finish line.”

It would also be a great boost to U.S. soccer in the lead-up to the 2026 World Cup, which will be co-hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Spanish and Argentine media reported that Messi’s first choice was to return to Barcelona for a swan song, and the Spanish club’s executives made it no secret they want him back. But Barca was mired in financial complications. Its offer to Messi reportedly was contingent on deals with other players and would take longer to formalize.

French sports newspaper L’Equipe reported last week that FC Barcelona and Inter Miami discussed the possibility of an arrangement in which Miami would sign the Argentine superstar and then loan him to Barcelona for six to 18 months.

“The Catalan giant’s financial situation and its heavy budgetary constraints make signing Messi extremely complicated, but the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has given his former club time to work on it,” L’Equipe reported. “The latter has already finalized substantial savings (wage cuts, end of contract for Jordi Alba, non-extension of (Sergio Busquets) but they are still far from the mark and are examining plans B.”

One of those alternatives would be a partnership with Inter Miami.

“This would allow him to continue playing at the highest level in Europe until the Copa America 2024, to come full circle with the club of his life, before going to discover MLS,” said the L’Equipe report.

The Copa America, a prestigious South American tournament, will be held in the United States in 2024 and will include six teams from CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean). It will be a test run for 2026 World Cup U.S. host cities, which include Miami.