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Lionel Messi chooses Inter Miami, MLS over Barca and Saudi Arabia

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2022/09/27: Lionel Messi (10) of Argentina sits on a bench during a friendly football game against Jamaica at Red Bull Arena. Argentina won 3 - 0. Friendly game played in preparation for the World Cup to be held in Qatar in November 2022. Three intruders were apprehended by security personnel after they invaded the pitch during the game trying to reach Lionel Messi of Argentina. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Lionel Messi has played many games in the United States over the years. Now he's coming to MLS. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In a monumental move that could alter the course of Major League Soccer, Lionel Messi has decided to sign with Inter Miami.

After days of momentum and a years-long pursuit, MLS and Miami won a three-horse race with Barcelona and Saudi Arabia to sign the world's greatest player.

Messi announced the decision Wednesday in an interview with Mundo Deportivo, which confirmed earlier reports. No contract has yet been signed, and no details have been announced, but it is reportedly a complex two-and-a-half year deal with a total value well over $100 million.

"I made the decision that I'm going to go to Miami," Messi said in the interview. "I still haven't finalized [the contract] 100% ... But we decided to [take this path]."

In a statement, MLS said that "work remains to finalize a formal agreement," but it concluded: "we look forward to welcoming one of the greatest soccer players of all time to our league."

The deal will reportedly include commercial arrangements with Apple and Adidas, two key MLS partners, for cuts of the broadcast and merchandise revenue that the Argentine superstar will generate. It also could give Messi an option to purchase a minority stake in Inter Miami after he has finished playing.

And it will surely boost the profile of soccer in the United States, both immediately and long term. Demand for Inter Miami tickets spiked on Wednesday, as opposing clubs made plans to accommodate the planet's most popular athlete.

Messi, whose contract with Paris Saint-Germain officially expires at the end of June, cannot officially join Inter Miami until MLS' summer transfer window opens on July 5. He'll likely debut, therefore, in either July or August. One mooted date is a July 21 game against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, a monthlong competition featuring teams from North America and Mexico. The MLS season will resume thereafter — and Messi will have the unenviable task of lifting a last-place, frequently dysfunctional franchise to the playoffs.

Inter Miami beats Barca, Saudis in Messi pursuit

Messi, for two decades, had been a one-club player at the pinnacle of the sport. He dazzled at Barcelona, and became synonymous with Barca's 21st-century image and success, which included four Champions League crowns and 10 La Liga titles. He left, regrettably and unwillingly, in 2021 amid a financial crisis at the Spanish club. He went to PSG, but both sides decided this spring to end that marriage of convenience after two underwhelming seasons.

So Messi became a soon-to-be free agent, and seemingly had three options: A lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia (some $400 million per year), a creative-but-less-lucrative offer from Inter Miami, and a non-existent offer from Barcelona.

Widespread reports indicated that, in a perfect world, he would have chosen the latter. Jorge Messi, his father and agent, said Monday that "Leo wants to return to Barca." But the club's ongoing financial problems, coupled with spending restrictions imposed by La Liga, impeded a reunion. In fact, at a meeting that same day, Jorge Messi had told Barca president Joan Laporta that Messi intended to go elsewhere.

Barca, according to reports, never actually extended a firm proposal with guarantees to Messi's camp, because it couldn't. Countless officials in Spain had talked up the possibility that Barca could sell several players to make room for Messi underneath spending caps; but the club was essentially asking Messi to wait until later in the summer for an option that may or may not have materialized.

So it was Florida, where Messi owns property and frequently vacations, versus Saudi Arabia, whose government has been paying him millions of dollars to promote tourism in the Gulf kingdom.

Messi said Wednesday that he had other interest from elsewhere in Europe, but that those clubs didn't entice him.

"If the Barcelona [deal] didn't work out, I wanted to leave Europe, get out of the spotlight, and think more about my family," he said.

For months, Barcelona made all the noise. Saudi Arabian authorities, meanwhile, readied for his arrival and made sure the media knew all about their readiness. But Inter Miami and MLS officials, led by Inter majority owners Jorge and Jose Mas, operated strategically and in silence. They reportedly presented a final proposal to Messi's camp last week, but never said a peep — until Wednesday, when Jorge Mas celebrated Messi's decision with a wordless tweet, and a photo of Messi's new No. 10 jersey.

Why Messi chose Miami

Messi was seemingly wooed by the South Florida lifestyle — less by Miami's glamor, more by the opportunity for a reprieve from constant pressure in a city where Spanish is nearly ubiquitous. Miami boasts a thriving Argentine community — and, soon, an Argentine national soccer training center — in addition to other Latin American flavor.

He was also attracted to the American market. There was Apple, which recently announced a Messi documentary; and other opportunities in Silicon Valley, where, in 2022, Messi and his family helped launch a holding company for investments at the intersection of soccer and technology.

All of which were reasons that Messi had previously said he’d like to play in the U.S. someday. That day is now near.

His move to the U.S. will likely bring an end to his European adventure, and to his dominance of elite club soccer. MLS, for all its growth, sits outside the sport's Euro-centric spotlight, and well below Spain or France in any ranking of the world's top domestic competitions.

Inter Miami, meanwhile, currently sits in last place in MLS' Eastern Conference, with an interim coach after last week's sacking of Phil Neville. (There have been reports linking Gerardo "Tata" Martino, Messi's former Argentina national team coach, with the vacancy.)

The stateside adventure, though, should be less taxing than the European club circuit, and could allow Messi to prolong his illustrious career. He is expected to lead Argentina into the 2024 Copa America, which will be played in the U.S. He could still take aim at the 2026 World Cup, which will also be co-hosted by the U.S.