How Lionel Messi found himself in Miami

He's one of soccer's biggest stars. Why would he want to play for a 'wretched' U.S. team?

Lionel Messi.
(Image credit: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

There are athletes, there are superstars, and then there's Lionel Messi. Widely renowned as one of (if not the) best soccer players of his generation, the Argentinian-born and Spanish-bred forward is known and respected not only among niche sports circles, but in nearly every corner of the world, especially after carrying the Argentinian national team to World Cup victory last year. In early June, however, he shocked the globe for a different, unexpected reason — after two years at Paris Saint-Germain, Messi confirmed he would be moving to Major League Soccer's Inter Miami at the end of the month. Fans and pundits alike were blindsided by the surprising switch, especially given (1) the eye-watering amount of money he was offered to play in Saudi Arabia, (2) his apparent desire to return to former club Barcelona, and (3) soccer's relatively subdued popularity in the United States. So how exactly did Messi find himself packing his bags for the Magic City?

Options, options

The impetus for the move was simple enough: Messi, 35, needed a new home. And after two somewhat-disappointing years at PSG, the "extremely valuable prospect," per The New York Times, had a few options. He could perhaps return to his longtime home of Barcelona, the Spanish club where he cut his teeth, or he could accept a monumental offer (allegedly somewhere in the ballpark of $500 million) to play in Saudi Arabia, where he is already part of a lucrative partnership to promote tourism.

In an interview with two Spanish sports news publications, the forward said he "obviously really wanted to return" to Catalonia and had discussed the possibility with members of the club's management. Barcelona's current financial position, however, ultimately "forced his hand," the Times explained. "I heard they had to sell players or lower salaries, and the truth is that I did not want to go through that," Messi said, suggesting he was worried the club could not bring him aboard without adjusting its roster for financial reasons. And those fears were not totally unfounded — it was, in fact, an issue of accounting that forced him to leave the club in 2021, not long after a leak of his contract revealed just how much he was getting paid. "The time I had to leave, La Liga had also accepted that the club would sign me, and in the end it couldn't be done," he said. "Well, I was afraid the same thing would happen again."

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In the end, Messi said he "wanted to make my own decision, thinking about myself and my family. A move away from Europe is a chance to "look for something else, and find a little peace of mind." If it had really "been a question of money, I would have gone to Arabia or somewhere."

A win for Miami

If a shock move to the MLS wasn't enough to surprise soccer fans, many were also gobsmacked by the superstar's choice of team. "Inter Miami are wretched," wrote The Guardian's Chris Smith. Why has one of the greatest athletes ever chosen to join a team that is currently "dead last in the Eastern Conference"?

Well, for one thing, Messi's deal (which is still being finalized) allegedly "includes an option for part-ownership of the club and a cut of revenue from new subscribers to Apple TV's MLS Season Pass streaming service," CNN reported. That structure means his "earning opportunities are much higher than his basic MLS salary." And Adidas, which has long outfitted both the U.S. league and Messi himself, also offered the athlete "a share of any profits related to his MLS involvement," noted Henry Bushnell, Yahoo Sports' senior soccer reporter. Of course, this deal structuring certainly won't amount to Saudi money; it probably won't even come close. But what the move does offer Messi is "long-term economic potential," a "relatively calm, cozy, luxurious lifestyle," and a "chance to leave a gargantuan legacy, one he can convert into earning potential for decades to come" — even as he's made clear that money wasn't the driving factor in his decision, Bushnell said. The star also already owns property in the city, and was likely further influenced by Inter Miami co-owner and fellow soccer legend David Beckham, who sources say rode "shotgun" to owners Jose and Jorge Mas in bringing Messi on board.

"It's surreal, but it's real," journalist Franco Panizo said on his "Miami Total Fútbol" podcast. "Besides the cameras and the glitz and glamour, just seeing [Messi] on the field and the atmosphere in the stadium is going to be incredible. This is going to be transformative for Inter Miami."

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Brigid Kennedy

Brigid is a staff writer at The Week and a graduate of Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Her passions include improv comedy, David Fincher films, and breakfast food. She lives in New York.