Lionel Messi, the soccer icon who made one of the most impactful moves in the history of the sport in America by signing with Inter Miami of the MLS last summer, has been named 2023 TIME Magazine Athlete of the Year.
“For reasons that have been bandied around for decades… the United States, the world’s most lucrative sports market, had never fully embraced the beautiful game,” wrote TIME senior sports correspondent Sean Gregory. “Recently, however, the sport has seen impressive growth, and with the U.S. hosting three major international tournaments in the next three years. … It’s sure to attract even more fans. But Messi is an accelerant. With the most revered and influential athlete on the planet playing in Miami for at least the next two years, still performing at the top of his game…the U.S. is now a soccer nation. A fútbol nation.”
Those three major U.S.-hosted tournaments include the 2024 Copa America, which can be seen exclusively in the U.S. on the FOX family of networks and the FOX Sports App next summer, as well as the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup and 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup.
Of course, a major aspect of Messi’s impact on American soccer is that he joined Inter Miami and the MLS less than six months after he led Argentina to a dramatic victory in the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup. While the 36-year-old Messi has not ruled out playing in 2026, the 2024 Copa America — which Argentina will also enter as defending champion — could be his last major international tournament for his country.
Messi’s decision was also stunning because, after a return to his home European club Barcelona was deemed not feasible, he turned down a massive deal to join the Saudi Pro League where he would have reunited with longtime rivals Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema among several other European club stars who have signed lucrative conntracts there.
“The truth is that fortunately, I had several options on the table that were interesting, and I had to analyze them and think, even weigh them up with my family, before making the final decision to come to Miami,” Messi told TIME. “It is also true that later I was thinking a lot about going to the Saudi league, where I know the country and they have created a very powerful competition that can become an important league in the near future.
“As the country’s tourism ambassador, it was a destination that attracted me, especially because I’ve enjoyed everything I have visited, because of how football is growing in the country and because of the effort they are putting into creating a top competition. It was Saudi Arabia or MLS, and both options seemed very interesting to me.”
Messi told TIME he has enjoyed adjusting to his new home, even if the traffic and humidity of Miami have been difficult at times. As for how his home has adjusted to him, Messi immediately electrified a crowd that included LeBron James, Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian and team co-owner David Beckham by sinking a game-winning free kick in his July 21 debut. Beckham was in tears after the kick as he embraced his wife Victoria in celebration.
“I remember getting in the car on the way back, and I said to Victoria, ‘I’m not even sure I can drive home,'” Beckham told TIME. “You couldn’t have written it better. It was for MLS, and for America. It was for the future of the game.”
Lionel Messi drills a ridiculous free kick in stoppage time in his inaugural match with Inter Miami CF
That’s true off the field, too. Messi’s MLS contract reportedly includes a revenue stake in league broadcast partner Apple and an ownership stake in Inter Miami upon retirement, similar to how Beckham’s contract to join the LA Galaxy in 2007 gave him an ownership stake in a future expansion club that later became Inter Miami.
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Inter Miami was one of the worst teams in the MLS when Messi joined, and though his heroics lifted the squad to its first-ever trophy in the in-season Leagues Cup tournament, Miami failed to make the 2023 MLS playoffs. Messi says he’s focused on physically and mentally resting and spending time with his family before next season.
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