Lionel Messi, possibly the greatest soccer player of all time, is taking his talents to South Beach. The former Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain superstar announced on Wednesday that he is heading to MLS with Inter Miami CF as a free agent this summer.
What led Messi, the seven-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, to make the move stateside? What impact does such a stellar signing have on MLS and soccer in the U.S.? How does the disappointment of Messi not returning to Barcelona affect the club for whom he won 35 major trophies and whom he left as their record goal scorer? And will the forward’s fans, who regard him as the GOAT, follow him on his new journey?
ESPN writers Gabriele Marcotti, Jeff Carlisle, Sam Marsden and Luis Miguel Echegaray give their views on this huge move.
The big picture: Messi opts to conquer new ground than revisit his past
And so, he has decided. Major League Soccer has won the Lionel Messi Final Four bracket, defeating Saudi competition in the final after both advanced past romantic long shots: the financially hamstrung Barcelona, where he spent 21 years, and Newell’s Old Boys, the hometown team he supported as a boy.
Messi’s contract with PSG expires at the end of this month, but really, more than a free agent signing, this move is more like a corporate joint venture between Inter Miami, MLS, the league’s broadcast rights holders (Apple), Adidas and the Lionel Andres Messi Corporation. We’ve been here before in 2007, when David Beckham — who, as if to prove the circularity of human existence, is a part-owner of Inter Miami) joined the LA Galaxy. And frankly, it would have been pretty much the same thing if he had opted for the Saudi Pro League, except there it would mostly be one source footing the bill: the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
(Indeed, in what to some may appear as a classic cart-before-the-horse move, Messi signed a reported $400 million contract with the Saudi tourism board … assuming he guaranteed them exclusivity, don’t expect him to be shilling for the delights of South Beach any time soon.)
Commercially, Messi will bring eyeballs to U.S. domestic soccer like nobody before him. More than Beckham, more than Zlatan Ibrahimovic — and for old-timers, more than Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Pele, if only because we live in a far more connected world today. Messi is not a natural pitchman, lacking both Ibrahimovic’s quotability and Beckham’s charisma, but hey: he’s Messi. He delivered the World Cup for Argentina less than six months ago, he has seven Ballons d’Or at home (winning the last of those 18 months ago) and he has scored more than 800 goals for club and country in his career.
He’s not the first legit GOAT candidate to play in North America because Pele was there in the 1970s, but the key difference is that half a century later, Messi will land in a very different country — one that is more diverse and more soccer-savvy, and one where he’s seen as a legitimate athlete, not a guy who plays the sport because he’s too uncoordinated to play baseball, too small to play basketball and too weak to play football.
You also suspect that Messi can deliver on the pitch. His two years at PSG ended in acrimony, with Messi booed by his own fans and most seeing his stint as a gigantic waste of money. He turns 36 in a couple of weeks and has neither the stamina, nor acceleration, he once had. In fact, he spends much of the game literally at walking pace: he doesn’t press at all and the team has to be built around him. Yet he still delivered a league-leading 14 assists while scoring 16 goals, none of them from the penalty spot, for PSG. That’s because, interspersed with his placid strolls around the pitch, are sudden bursts of genius and acceleration that still befuddle most opponents, the sort of thing you can keep doing even into your late 30s. (Well, if you’re Messi anyway.)
Maybe it was inevitable that, having finally conquered the World Cup, he would opt to conquer a new world rather than revisit his past, ultimately plumping for North America over the Gulf. Fans in North America should count themselves lucky. Because if you attend the right MLS game, you may be able to one day tell your grandkids that you saw Messi in the flesh. Just like your dad tells you he saw Michael Jordan, your grandfather tells you he saw Muhammad Ali and your great-grandfather tells you he saw Babe Ruth.
That’s the category of superstar in which Messi exists. — Marcotti
Messi can take MLS to the moon — and beyond
Securing one of the biggest prizes in world soccer in Messi provides a surge of rocket fuel to an organization that is in desperate need of a lift.
Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas has been angling to acquire Messi practically from the moment he and co-owners Beckham and Jose Mas were awarded the team in 2018. Now he has his man.
There will be inevitable comparisons to when MLS convinced Beckham to join the Galaxy in 2007, and there are similarities in that there are financial incentives beyond salary that helped cinch the deal.
In Beckham’s case it was a discounted price on an MLS expansion team, which in a bit of serendipity became Inter Miami. Sources confirmed a report from The Athletic that Messi has an option to acquire an ownership stake in Inter Miami, although a source with knowledge of the situation said it will not come at a discount like Beckham’s deal did.
ESPN can also confirm that a cut of revenue from new subscribers to Apple’s MLS Season Pass streaming service is being offered to Messi. Any agreement involving Adidas would strictly be between the player and the company, and it wouldn’t directly involve MLS, despite the German company outfitting the league’s clubs exclusively since 2006.
All of that said, the times — and needs — of MLS are different. When Beckham signed on in 2007, MLS was still trying to get off the launch pad with just 13 teams. His arrival not only set the stage for other stars such as Thierry Henry and Kaka to come over, but also helped accelerate an expansion boom that by next season will have reached 30 teams.
Messi’s arrival is poised to take MLS to the moon, or even beyond. He is arguably the greatest player who ever lived, something Beckham never was.
The league has been laying the foundation for this move for years, with the increased continental footprint combining well with the global reach of its recent broadcast rights deal with Apple TV. With the 2026 World Cup set to take place in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, the potential is there to greatly increase revenues for all parties involved in the deal.
As for Inter Miami, Messi is a massive antidote for a last-place team who have struggled to generate quality chances, with their expected goal (xG) mark of 0.82 per 90 minutes the worst in the league. If former teammate Sergio Busquets also arrives, so much the better, although there will need to be some adapting to a league that is several notches below what they are accustomed to, not to mention the weather and travel demands. The sight of Messi playing in an 18,000-seat stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, will take some getting used to.
Why Lionel Messi heading to MLS would make sense
Rodri Faez explains why Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami in MLS would make more sense than a move to Saudi Pro League.
Yet there is certainly an “others will follow” type of vibe to Messi’s arrival. If that’s the case, money should follow as well. — Carlisle
Messi couldn’t wait for Barcelona again
Barcelona supporters and even some of the club’s hierarchy were split when the possibility of Messi returning surfaced. There were those who thought, after blooding a new generation of youngsters and winning a first LaLiga title since 2019, it was time to turn the page as Messi approaches the end of his career.
There were others, though, who were caught up in the romance of a homecoming for the club’s greatest ever player. Forced to leave in 2021 because Barca could not afford to register the contract they had offered him, this was a chance for Messi to say goodbye properly to fans who have chanted his name in the 10th minute of every home game at Spotify Camp Nou since March. Besides, there is an overwhelming argument to be made that he remains among the best players in the world. Six months ago he led Argentina to the World Cup, while he registered 21 goals and 20 assists across all competitions for PSG this season.
What at first seemed a pipe dream slowly began to feel like a reality. Even some supporters who had been happy to pass on Messi got on board with the idea that, as the club’s vice president Rafa Yuste said at any opportunity, love stories should have beautiful endings.
At the centre of the charm offensive was Barca coach Xavi Hernandez. Throughout the past two weeks, he has made it clear across several interviews that he wanted Messi back, that the forward would provide the missing creativity in the final third and that, with Xavi’s help, Messi would get his fairy-tale ending at the club.
With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was a last throw of the dice from Xavi, aware that the chances of bringing him back were slipping away. They slipped away because, like in 2021, Barca could offer no guarantees they would be able to register his contract.
Regardless of what Messi actually earned, LaLiga would have factored his salary in at around €25 million, based on his previous contracts. Barca, who can only spend 40% of what they save or earn because of financial restrictions imposed by the league for exceeding their spending cap, would need to raise more than €60m to inscribe Messi. It could have been possible by August, maybe even July, but certainly not now.
After waiting in 2021, Messi could not face such uncertainty again. In the immediate aftermath of the news, his move to Miami feels almost like a second Barca exit given all the hope that had been generated in recent weeks. — Marsden
The fan’s perspective: Messi’s arrival a catalyst for growing fan base
Aside from the business standpoint, it’s important to see the significance of Messi’s move to Inter Miami and MLS as a rocket-ship-sized needle-mover for the league and the overall U.S. fan base. The stars are aligning in so many ways that it’s creating a proverbial constellation. Miami, the Latin American capital of the world, will welcome Messi; his wife, Antonella; and their children like adopted royalty, and his presence alone will be another factor — perhaps the biggest — in driving the soccer market in America, where the sport is already rivaling the top three most popular in the nation.
There are millions of children in the U.S. who wear “Messi” shirts as opposed to Patrick Mahomes or Steph Curry. It’s not coincidental. Soccer in America is a growing mountain, and Messi is arriving in a league with developing markets, a massive distributor in Apple, a competitive nature and a city where he doesn’t even need to learn English, one that celebrates the flavor of Latin American and immigrant culture. Oh, and a country that’s hosting the World Cup in 2026.
That’s why this is a major move for the U.S.-based soccer fan. There is already a growing community of fans, especially young ones, whose idol has been Messi. Now, they can see him live across the country. The same goes with the impact of those who want to play the sport and see Messi as a promoter of the beautiful game. Not forgetting that this does wonders for up-and-comers such as his Argentina teammate and Atlanta United midfielder Thiago Almada, and how we might see even more talented players from all over the world — specifically South America — arrive to the league. Argentina’s federation also plans to build a brand-new training facility in Miami, making it the nation’s hub in the U.S.
MLS is the most diverse sports league in North America. With Messi, the impact will be that much bigger. In 2007, Beckham aggressively moved and affected the trajectory of MLS with his arrival to the Galaxy. Now, as Inter Miami owner, he is once again responsible for pushing it to even higher altitudes with the arrival of his friend, Messi. — Echegaray