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Lionel Messi Inter Miami transfer a done deal

Lionel Messi after scoring against Nigeria in the 2022 FIFA World Cup
Courtesy Кирилл Венедиктов - soccer.ru

Lionel Messi is on his way to MLS. After a number of media reports emerged heavily linking him with the move, the Messi Inter Miami move was confirmed by the player himself. Inter Miami owner Jorge Mas has also cryptically tweeted an image that sure looks like an eventual Messi No. 10 Miami jersey.

This means one of the sport’s greatest-ever players is coming to MLS, albeit to a team that recently fired head coach Phil Neville, sits at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table, and is still operating under financial sanctions for violating league roster rules.

Messi biographer Guillem Balague, on Twitter and in an article for the BBC, stated that Messi-to-Miami was a done deal, with European transfer guru Fabrizio Romano confirming that same news not long after.

Messi will spurn a lucrative offer to join Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal. He also bypasses a potential return to FC Barcelona, where he spent 21 years and built his unquestioned legacy as one of the sport’s greats. Barcelona, though, remain hampered by the same financial difficulties that first played a part in Messi’s exit from the Catalan club for a move to Paris Saint-Germain back in 2021.

Why MLS?

What makes MLS appealing as Messi’s next and perhaps final professional destination? The Athletic reports Messi has been offered a share of the revenue generated by new subscriptions for AppleTV’s MLS Season Pass, along with a profit-sharing arrangement with official MLS merch partner and sponsor, adidas. MLS also reportedly might let Messi have the option to eventually buy his way into partial MLS team ownership, similar to the arrangement David Beckham, current Inter Miami owner, made during his time playing for LA Galaxy.

Being in the U.S. and closer geographically to Argentina could also be a bonus as Messi considers how to play out these last days of his club and international careers. The United States is set to host the Copa America tournament in 2024, the next big international challenge for Messi and his Argentina teammates after their World Cup triumph in Qatar in December 2022. It’s also hosting the World Cup in 2026, though it’s no given that Messi will still be active and in contention for that tournament given that he’ll be 39 when it kicks off.

In the bigger MLS picture, Messi’s arrival will be one of the most important events in the league’s history. He might be the biggest match-day draw MLS has ever seen, seeming like a sure bet to pack stadiums across the U.S. once he does start playing for Miami.

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The Apple angle

Messi will also likely offer a huge boost to the league’s efforts to find more subscribers for Apple’s MLS Season Pass. Yes, Apple has come out and said the company is happy with the early returns on its 10-year, $2.5 billion broadcast partnership with MLS, but it’s also a still-new subscription product that could undeniably use the boost of star power offered by having all of Lionel Messi’s club matches available as part of its offering.

A global superstar brings with him global appeal even for potential MLS Season Pass subscriptions: Anyone in any country can subscribe and watch MLS matches through Apple, a positive upside to the MLS-Apple deal that might have even helped New York City FC sign its most recent Designated Player. Messi will sell tickets in the U.S., but he’s likely to sell Apple subscriptions across the entire globe, which can’t be said for many other players linked with moves to the American league.

MLS and Inter Miami were always discussed as a possible post-PSG destination for Messi, so the news does not come entirely out of the blue. Given the historic connection to Barça and the eye-popping sums offered by Al-Hilal, though, Messi making the final decision to come to MLS would still rate as something of a surprise.

Turning down potentially over a billion dollars in salary from Al-Hilal and its benefactor, the cash-splashing Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), is as bold a financial choice as there is. It’s also a rare setback for Saudi Arabia and its sportswashing investing efforts. The Saudi PIF is fresh off buying Newcastle United of the Premier League and the entire sport of golf, and has also taken over the four largest teams in the Saudi Pro League and proceeded to hundreds of millions to sign players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and N’Golo Kante.

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Miami’s history of financial irregularities

The fact that MLS is guiding Messi to Inter Miami does come as a bit of a head-scratcher when considered alongside the financial sanctions Miami were recently handed by MLS for violations of roster rules. Miami has been operating under financial restrictions and had to jettison players (hello, Matías Pellegrini!) to get their roster in compliance after MLS found them in violation of a number of rules during the 2020 season, when they signed Blaise Matuidi among a slew of others and improperly handled their payments and salary designations.

So Inter Miami will go from a troubled franchise in the proverbial doghouse for the handling of its roster, and one still searching for a final downtown Miami stadium solution (DRV PNK, their home venue, is in Ft. Lauderdale), to one of the marquee MLS teams sure to draw press and fan interest from all corners. How quickly things change when even one of the league’s worst team’s interests perfectly align with the interests of the league’s owners and some of the league’s biggest financial backers.

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A field day for StubHub speculators

For fans of other MLS teams like us here in NYCFC-land, get ready to experience whiplash watching ticket prices rise for any Inter Miami match featuring Messi from now until he departs MLS. Locally, NYCFC unfortunately already had its 2023 visit from Inter Miami for the team’s home opener back in March, so the chance to see a living legend on one of NYCFC’s two converted baseball diamonds will have to wait until 2024 at the earliest.

The Red Bulls do host Inter Miami in late August, and it appears the usually-empty Harrison, New Jersey stadium might actually get to experience a rare non-Hudson River Derby sellout thanks to the potential presence of Messi. That NYCFC away day at Inter Miami on Saturday, September 30 always stood out as a popular trip for would-be traveling fans given the sunny locale, but adding Messi to the mix might make it even more enticing.

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