Lionel Messi did what the PGA Tour couldn’t: turn down Saudi Arabia’s cash, that is. In the same week of the shocking PGA Tour-LIV Golf merger that assures Saudi Arabia will remain a powerful presence in global golf, Messi thwarted another massive win for a state that’s pushing to become the player in international sports. Instead of signing with the Saudi club Al-Hilal for a reported $1 billion over two years, Messi chose Inter Miami, of U.S.-based Major League Soccer (MLS), as the locale to play out his final days. Al-Hilal is now owned by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF)—the soon-to-be financial engine of the PGA. “If it had been a question of money, I would have gone to [Saudi] Arabia or elsewhere where they offered me a lot of money,” Messi said in an interview with Spanish news outlets Mundo Deportivo and Sport.
It’s a nice notion, the greatest player of his generation rejecting the endless resources of a state with a problematic human rights record, in order to take his talents to South Beach and further grow the beautiful game in America. Fellow superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema didn’t take such a stand: they’re toiling in Saudi Arabia for eye-popping sums.
While Messi, 35, surely could have cashed Saudi riches, don’t be fooled. He’s still following the money, like he always has. The salary attached to his deal isn’t known, but Messi will reportedly also be given an ownership stake in Inter Miami once his playing career ends. His deal will likely include a revenue-sharing agreement with Apple, tied to new subscribers signing up to MLS Season Pass on Apple TV+, as well as a portion of Adidas’ additional profits resulting from his MLS presence. (In 2017, Messi signed a lifetime sponsorship agreement with Adidas.) He’s making a long-term bet in the U.S., which is co-hosting the 2026 World Cup. MLS valuations are rising and Inter Miami, which is co-owned by David Beckham, was valued at $585 million in 2022, according to Sportico. Messi will surely goose that figure.
If he wasn’t following money, Messi would have spent his final years in Barcelona, the club he joined when he was just 13 years old, the club with which he grew into an all-time great. But under La Liga’s strict financial rules, a deal couldn’t be worked out.
In the summer of 2021, Messi left Barcelona to sign with Paris Saint-Germain, which is owned by Qatar, another controversial entity in sports. That contract reportedly awarded him $41 million in annual net salary, including signing bonus. He also reportedly earns millions per year as a Saudi tourism ambassador. “Messi wants you to unleash your inner thrill seeker and uncover the unimagined,” reads a Saudi Arabia tourism site. “Whether you travel to discover new things, old things, or just to awaken something new inside yourself, Saudi satisfies on all fronts. So what are you waiting for? Plan your adventure now!”
He said he considered leaving Barcelona even earlier, after Spanish tax authorities targeted him. In 2016, Messi and his father Jorge received a suspended 21-month jail sentence after being found guilty of defrauding tax authorities of 4.1 million euros (then $4.6 million).
At least in Florida, he won’t have to worry about state income taxes. That’s just one reason the state attracts so many retirees (sand, sun, and pickleball being the others). MLS, in fact, has garnered a reputation as a sort of “retirement league,” the place where global greats enjoy American adulation in their waning days. Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Thierry Henry all joined the league past their primes.
Messi is coming off his career capstone—winning his first World Cup with Argentina. He’s hinting at a kinder, gentler time in south Florida. Messi said he felt the time had come to join the U.S. league “to experience football in a different way and enjoy the day-to-day … Obviously, with the same responsibility and desire to want to win and to always do things well. But with more peace of mind.” Even Barcelona took a subtle dig at MLS, saying club president Joan Laporta respected Messi’s decision to “compete in a league with fewer demands.”
Messi, however, has a chance to elevate American pro soccer in the eyes of the world. Yes, he’s getting up there in years. But he’s still Messi. He’s still a wizard on the pitch. Fellow GOATS, like Tom Brady and LeBron James, have stayed dominant into their 40s. If he delivers hordes of new fans to America’s domestic league, and inspires other international superstars to follow him to the U.S., all that cash in Messi’s pocket will pay off.
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