MLS, Inter Miami pushing to land Messi over Barcelona

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MLS, Inter Miami pushing to land Messi over Barcelona

By Paul Tenorio, Felipe Cardenas and Pablo Maurer

Editor’s Note: This story is included in The Athletic’s Best of 2023. View the full list.

Major League Soccer and Inter Miami are solidifying details around the potential signing of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

Multiple sources briefed on the negotiations said there is growing hope that Inter Miami could close a deal to bring the World Cup winner to MLS as soon as this summer. Those sources also warned that confidence in a deal with Messi has fluctuated week to week and even day to day. All sources in this story were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing negotiations.

One source briefed on the high-level league discussions said MLS executives were told Messi’s decision is down to Inter Miami or Barcelona and that joining a club from Saudi Arabia is “not under consideration.” That same source mentioned a potential date for Messi’s MLS debut, should he sign: Inter Miami’s Leagues Cup match against Mexican side Cruz Azul on July 21, currently set to be held at Inter Miami’s DRV PNK Stadium.


Summer transfer window on The Athletic


Reports about Messi’s imminent decision have emerged from Europe, South America and Asia, and have run the gamut this week, but momentum seems to have shifted toward Inter Miami in recent days.

“The league has gotten very creative with all of this,” one MLS stakeholder said of a potential deal to bring Messi to MLS on Tuesday morning. “Everything is on the table.”

MLS’s offer to Messi involves contributions from the league’s two biggest commercial partners.

Multiple sources involved in or briefed on the high-level league discussions said earlier this week that MLS and Apple have discussed offering Messi a share of the revenue generated by new subscribers to MLS Season Pass, the league’s streaming package on Apple TV+. Both sides view Messi’s potential involvement in Major League Soccer as a boon; Apple and MLS signed a 10-year, $2.5 billion agreement this spring. On Tuesday, Apple revealed that a four-part docuseries chronicling Messi’s five World Cup appearances would stream on Apple TV+.

Adidas, which is among MLS’ largest corporate sponsors, has prepared its own potential arrangement to entice Messi to the United States, multiple sources briefed on those plans told The Athletic on Tuesday. Messi is being offered a profit-sharing agreement with the sportswear giant, those sources said, which would involve the player receiving a cut of any increase in Adidas’ profits resulting from his involvement in MLS.

Adidas has partnered with MLS since the league’s inception in 1996. The two sides renewed their partnership earlier this year, signing a six-year, $830 million extension that runs through 2030. The German manufacturer supplies kits to all 29 MLS teams and also designs the league’s official match ball and is the league’s official footwear sponsor.

Messi himself has a long-standing relationship with Adidas, which started in 2006. In 2017, he signed a lifetime footwear sponsorship deal with the company.

Sources across the league who have been briefed on talks varied in their confidence level of whether Inter Miami and MLS would be able to win the race to sign Messi. One source classified it as 50-50. Another said even Inter Miami team executives are split on whether they think it will happen. The negotiations are being led by Inter Miami owners Jorge and Jose Mas, those sources said.

Messages left for Inter Miami spokespeople and Jorge and Jose Mas were not returned as of publication.

Messi’s deal likely would include the option to purchase a percentage of an MLS team upon the end of his time as a player in MLS, multiple sources briefed on the discussions said. That would at least resemble David Beckham’s contract with the LA Galaxy, which gave him the option to purchase an MLS expansion team for $25 million. That option eventually became Inter Miami.

Miami has been hoping to sign Messi almost since its inception. When the expansion team was officially announced in 2018, Messi posted a video on social media congratulating Beckham and saying, “Who knows, maybe in a few years you can give me a ring.” The club has worked to build up connections to Messi and even has links to his longtime club, Barcelona. Miami’s chief business officer is Xavier Asensi, the former Barcelona chief commercial officer and member of the Spanish club’s executive board. In April, Beckham, who finished his playing career with Paris Saint-Germain, visited the club’s training facility and was photographed with Messi, which fueled rumors about the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner’s potential arrival to MLS.

 

Should Messi come to Miami, he could be greeted by a familiar face. Multiple sources involved in or briefed on Miami’s coaching search confirmed to The Athletic that preliminary talks have taken place between Inter Miami and Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who is currently without a job after leaving his post with the Mexico national team in December.

Miami is currently led by interim head coach Javier Morales. The club’s previous coach, Phil Neville, was fired last week.

Martino, 60, coached Messi and Argentina to consecutive Copa América final appearances, including the 2016 edition that was held in the U.S. Martino also managed Messi at Barcelona from 2013-2014.

Martino won an MLS Cup as manager of Atlanta United in 2018. Despite disagreements with Atlanta’s sporting department regarding player signings, Martino led the two-year-old club to a league title in 2018, his second and final season in MLS. His influence on player recruitment was paramount to Atlanta United’s immediate success.

A source close to Martino, who requested anonymity due to the nature of their relationship, told The Athletic that Messi and Martino got along fine when they worked together. They weren’t close and they weren’t distant either, the source said. Seven years later, both player and manager have matured in different ways. Messi, once considered a failure with his national team, is now a World Cup champion. Martino is coming off a tumultuous four-year campaign with Mexico with a keen interest in returning to MLS. Inter Miami declined to comment on potential coaching candidates.

“MLS is my weakness,” Martino told The Athletic in April. “I was part of an extraordinary project with Atlanta United that had a clear direction, a lot of communication and similar objectives that were established very quickly and executed. After coaching in MLS, I became attracted to it. I like the league. The possibility of returning to MLS is always there.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber told The Athletic in March it would likely take a creative deal — like the one Beckham had when he joined the LA Galaxy in 2007 — for the league to land Messi.

“You’re dealing with perhaps the most special player in the history of the game,” Garber said of Messi. “So when there are rumors of him connected to Miami, that’s great. And if it could happen, it would be terrific for MLS, it would be terrific for Messi and his family, and like everything with us, we try to run every opportunity down. I can’t give any more details than that because we don’t have them.”

Messi signed a two-year deal with PSG last season after spending the previous 17 years with Barcelona. The French side won its 11th Ligue 1 title this season, with Messi netting 16 goals with 16 assists in 32 league games. He added four goals over seven games in Champions League play. PSG reached the Round of 16 in Champions League in 2022-23 before falling to Bayern Munich.

Last month, he was suspended for two weeks by PSG for taking an unauthorized trip to Saudi Arabia. Saudi club Al-Hilal is also in the running for Messi’s signature, having offered a deal reportedly worth over $400 million per year.

Inter Miami, founded in 2018, is co-owned by Beckham. It went 14-6-14 last season, finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference, and is 5-0-11 this year. Even before they kicked a ball, Inter Miami was expected to eventually field a team of stars, an MLS version of Galácticos. This was due mostly to comments that Mas has made publicly.

“David and I have been working really hard, we have aspirations of bringing the best players here and Leo Messi is a generational player, arguably the best player of all time,” Mas told the Miami Herald in 2021. “I am optimistic Messi will play in an Inter Miami shirt because I think it will complete the legacy of the greatest player in our generation and will meet with the ambitions of the owners of Inter Miami to build a world class team.”

The reality has been much different. Yes, Miami has fielded World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi and former Argentina and Real Madrid striker Gonzalo Higuaín. But players like Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodríguez, Radamel Falcao, Antoine Griezmann, Marco Verratti, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suárez, Sergio Busquets and others have amounted to rumors or deals that fell well short of reality. Inter Miami needs a big star or the fans in South Florida won’t show up on match day.

“This town wants to be turned on, you know what I mean?” Neville said in February. “I think this club is far from working-class. It’s got to have a little bit of glitz and glamor. It’s gotta aim for the moon rather than the stars. That comes with the location that we’re in. The people of Miami want to be turned on. They want South Beach.”

Neville didn’t last to see whether Messi will in fact come to MLS. He did, however, have an opinion on the impact his signing would have on the league.

“I think it goes bigger than Inter Miami,” said Neville. “It’s big for the MLS. I think this would be probably the biggest signing, ever. I think if we have the opportunity to sign Messi and if he does come to this football club — and I don’t think we can hide away from the fact that we are probably in the ballpark, probably in the hunt, is that we have to be prepared for that.”

(Photo: Aurelien Meunier / Getty Images)