2023Athlete of the Year

Lionel Messi

17 minute read
Messi during the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on  Aug. 23.
By Sean Gregory | Photograph by Simon Bruty—Anychance/Getty Images

That this moment unfolded, on July 21, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale still feels surreal. Lionel Messi, in his first game wearing a pink Inter Miami jersey, was awarded a free kick in the final seconds of his Major League Soccer (MLS) debut. Here was the greatest living soccer player, arguably the best to ever play the world’s most popular game, who last year led Argentina to its first World Cup win in nearly four decades, suiting up for a last-place club in the U.S.

Before the kick, Inter Miami defender DeAndre Yedlin, who played in that same World Cup for the U.S., went to the sideline with a cramp in his right calf. He cautioned his coach, Gerardo “Tata” Martino, against selecting him to take a penalty kick after regulation inevitably ended in a 1-1 draw between Inter Miami and Cruz Azul at the Leagues Cup, a tournament featuring teams from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX. Martino, who was familiar with Messi’s magic from managing him for Argentina and FC Barcelona, told Yedlin not to worry: Messi was going to put this shot in the back of the net and end the game. “I was like, OK,” says Yedlin, not at all convinced. 

Messi placed the ball on the grass. Kim Kardashian and LeBron James were in the crowd that night, but not a soul was looking at them. The ball left Messi’s left foot, and as the shot began to curl around a wall of a half-dozen Cruz Azul players, Yedlin, who was standing on the field behind Messi, spread his arms in a victory pose. “You know when you can just feel something?” says Yedlin. Messi’s shot continued bending, bending, past the outstretched arms of the diving Cruz Azul goalkeeper, sending the 20,000-plus fans at DRV PNK Stadium—and millions more watching around the world—into absolute hysterics. Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham was moved to tears. “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 tells TIME. “You couldn’t have written it better. It was for MLS, and for America. It was for the future of the game.”

Athlete of the Year 2023 Lionel Messi
Illustration by Neil Jamieson for TIME; Trevor Ruszkowski—USSF/Getty Images; Megan Briggs—Getty Images; Matt Kelley—Getty Images

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Few could have imagined this scene—the pink sea of fans losing their minds over their new local sensation—seven months earlier as Messi kissed the World Cup trophy, finally securing the ultimate prize that had long eluded him. Messi finished his 2022–2023 club season, for Paris St.-Germain (PSG), with 21 goals and 20 assists across all competitions. Then, as his contract with that team wound down, speculation about his future ran rampant. Would he return to Barcelona, the team that signed him as a 13-year-old phenom from Rosario, Argentina? Would he further empower Saudi Arabia, a country that has been accused of “sports-washing” its troubling human-rights record by signing global superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema? After all, Messi was already a tourism ambassador for the kingdom, for which he can earn some $25 million. (Saudi Arabia is also set to host the 2034 World Cup.)

The call came down to the wire. “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 tells TIME. He confirms that a Barcelona homecoming was a real consideration. “My first option was to return to Barcelona, but it was not possible,” Messi says. “I tried to return, and it did not happen.” Saudi Arabia, indeed, was very much in the mix. “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,” Messi says. “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.”

At the end, he tells TIME, “it was Saudi Arabia or MLS, and both options seemed very interesting to me.” Messi shocked the globe by turning down a contract from a Saudi club reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year and announcing in June that he was signing with Inter Miami. It wasn’t just the move that was stunning, but the size and scope of the deal. In addition to the more than $20 million a year Inter Miami would pay him, he would be granted an ownership stake in the team upon retirement and an unprecedented cut of revenues earned by a league media partner—in this case, Apple. It was a deal that not only reflected Messi’s undiminished talent on the field but also set a new standard for athlete leverage and empowerment.

Lionel Messi Athlete of the Year 2023
Fans wait to enter DRV PNK Stadium before a match against Cruz Azul on July 21.Rebecca Blackwell—AP

Messi marked his arrival in the U.S. by scoring 10 goals in seven Leagues Cup games while leading Inter Miami to the championship. A nagging injury slowed his MLS pace come September, but that hardly mattered. At 36, two decades into his unparalleled career, Messi provided a singular stimulus to soccer in America. Attendance, ticket prices, merchandise sales, and viewership soared. His games took on the feel of a religious revival. After Messi scored a goal against the New York Red Bulls in August, rapper Fat Joe posted on Instagram a video of himself, nearly in tears, shouting “Messi! Messi! Messi!”

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“I had to be electrified,” says Fat Joe in explaining why, despite not being much of a soccer fan, he was at that Saturday-night game in Harrison, N.J. “This man is a culture shifter. He’s a GOAT.” 

For reasons that have been bandied around for decades (lack of goal scoring, not as violent as football or fun as basketball, status as a foreign import), the United States, the world’s most lucrative sports market, had never fully embraced the beautiful game. Recently, however, the sport has seen impressive growth, and with the U.S. hosting three major international tournaments in the next three years (Copa America in 2024, the FIFA Club World Cup in 2025, and the grandest of them all, the World Cup, in 2026), 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—he won another Ballon d’Or as the world’s player of the year, his eighth, in late October—the U.S. is now a soccer nation. A fútbol nation.

The unlikely tale of how Messi ended up in South Florida begins in January 2018, when Inter Miami announced it was joining MLS as an expansion team starting play in 2020. Beckham, who as part of the 2007 contract he signed with the L.A. Galaxy maintained the right to buy into an MLS expansion franchise for $25 million, was a co-owner, along with brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, Miami natives who run MasTec, an infrastructure construction company. Their dream was to lure Messi to the team. “The people who know me really well laughed,” says managing owner Jorge Mas. “The people who don’t know me were sort of really respectful. They’d turn around and go, ‘This is way out of his league.’”

An exec for Messi’s longtime sponsor Adidas helped broker a meeting with Beckham, Jorge Mas, and Jorge Messi, Lionel’s father and agent, in September 2019 in Barcelona. The owners laid out their vision for the club and how Messi could fit into a city that’s 70% Hispanic. But Messi wasn’t quite ready for a radical relocation in the summer of 2021, when he left Barcelona for Paris.

Mas was undeterred. While MLS was negotiating a 10-year, $2.5 billion contract for its games to be carried on Apple TV in 2022, Mas told Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of services, about his quest to sign Messi. “To me, it would be like the London basketball league saying, ‘I want to sign LeBron James,’” Cue says. “‘OK, sure.’” But Mas kept in touch with Messi’s father, and in September 2022, Argentina held a pre–World Cup training camp in Miami. This gave Mas crucial face time with the man himself. “My biggest message to him was ‘Listen, few times in history has an uber-athlete been in a position to change a sport in a country,’” says Mas. “‘You have the opportunity to change the sport in the largest commercial market in the world, which is the United States of America.’” 

Mas then took off for the World Cup in Qatar in November 2022 to deepen his Team Messi ties. He attended every Argentina game and secured a spot in Messi’s box for the final, in which Messi scored a pair of goals and prevailed in a penalty-kick shoot-out. “There was a certain trend of thought that said, ‘Oh my god, if Messi wins a World Cup, well, sh-t, we’ll never land Messi,’” Mas says. Mas, however, felt the opposite was true. “If he wins the World Cup, I’m 1,000% convinced that we’re good,” says Mas. “Because it’s the crowning achievement. He needed a new chapter. Completely different. Blank pages.”

As talks between Inter Miami and Messi’s camp advanced, Cue added what would become a carrot in the deal, offering Messi a slice of Apple’s international subscription revenues, which would undoubtedly spike once he joined MLS.

Lionel Messi Athlete of the Year 2023
Messi leaps in celebration after scoring the opening goal during the Leagues Cup Final between Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF on Saturday, Aug. 19.Nick Tre. Smith—Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Still, it was hardly a sure thing. “The one that really worried me was Barcelona,” says Beckham. “He never got to say goodbye to the fans, or say goodbye to the club.” Beckham and Mas ultimately convinced him that his family—Messi and his wife Antonela Roccuzzo have three sons, 11, 8, and 5—would enjoy South Florida. “I explained to him, as a family, the six years we had in L.A. were the best six years that we had,” says Beckham. “People welcomed us with open arms, not just in L.A., but the whole of America.”

On June 7, Messi announced he was coming to Miami. His soon-to-be teammates were in Birmingham, Ala., preparing for a game when they heard the news. Midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, an 18-year-old Miami native whose father played rugby for the Argentina national team, had a fever. Plus, he was too drained from responding to a million messages to outwardly rejoice. “But inside,” he says, “I was going crazy.”

Upon landing in Florida, Messi did his best to blend in. (No simple task when a bodyguard follows you up and down the sideline during games and murals of your likeness pop up around the city.) “You don’t know how he’s going to be off the field,” says Yedlin, 30. “He can come in here and change the colors of the club if he wanted to.” Inter Miami still wears pink; the pink Messi jersey became the most sought-after piece of sports merchandise in the world. “He just wants to be part of the group,” says Yedlin. Messi, for example, joined a team text chain and offered to help secure extra game tickets for players’ friends and family. “It was really nice to see, especially for the younger players,” says Yedlin. “I went through this as a young player: you get on little ego trips when you have a good game. But it really humbles you to see the greatest ever coming in and talking to everybody and making jokes and giving advice to the young guys and saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to everyone in the building. It makes you realize, ‘I have a lot further to go before I can start putting myself on a cloud.’”

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“From day one, Leo arrives early, and he leaves later than any other player,” says Beckham. “He’s the most professional player on our squad.” 

Adjusting to life in the U.S., Messi says, has been “pretty easy.” “For now, we can’t complain about anything,” he says. “Perhaps the most difficult thing to adapt to may be the traffic, although in Paris it was also complicated. And then the heat and humidity in the summer. Although being on the beach or on vacation can often be pleasant, for playing sports, training or playing games, especially in the summer, perhaps it is a little too much, and that shows.”

On the day of Messi’s Inter Miami debut, Apple added some 110,000 U.S. subscriptions to its MLS Season Pass service, according to analytics company Antenna, the largest ever single-day spike and a 1,700% increase over the prior day. Since Messi joined Inter Miami, Apple’s numbers in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Europe “went from basically zero to moving the needle in a huge way,” says Cue. After Inter Miami’s win over Cruz Azul, Messi scored four goals in two more Inter Miami home victories in the Leagues Cup before Messimania hit the road to the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex. “It was our highest-revenue night of all time,” says Dan Hunt, president of FC Dallas, an MLS charter franchise. “And it wasn’t even close.” Messi scored another pair of goals, his second on another incredible curling free kick that tied the game, 4-4, late. Inter Miami won in penalties.

“What sets him apart from everyone else is between his ears,” says former MLS player Taylor Twellman, an analyst for Apple TV. “His understanding of pace, his understanding of where to be when no one else is there. It’s always been different. And as he’s gotten older, he hasn’t had the propensity to run at a high intensity for long. But if you know where to be and when to be and how to be, it doesn’t matter if you’ve lost a step or two. He’s still operating at a higher level than anybody else.”

Lionel Messi Athlete of the Year 2023
Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham hugs Messi on July 16, the day after the soccer star officially signed with Inter Miami.Marco Bello—Reuters

“One of the greatest things I’ve heard one of our academy kids say—in an interview, he was asked, ‘Has Leo given you any advice since he’s arrived?’ And the advice was ‘Walk more,’” says Beckham. “Walk more in the game. Because you see more. That’s what makes Leo great.” 

Detractors attributed Messi’s success to inferior MLS competition. But the evidence shows his dominance extends far beyond what he’s done for Miami. Besides winning the Golden Ball as the most outstanding player at the World Cup, Messi was the only player in Europe’s top leagues to have 20 or more goals and assists in all competitions during his final PSG season. Plus, after his standout Leagues Cup performance this summer, Messi continued his brilliance in the fall, scoring three goals in three victories for Argentina in World Cup qualifying matches. “All those people who think that can only happen in MLS, they’re not paying attention to what he did in the World Cup,” says Don Garber, the MLS commissioner. “They’re not paying attention to what he’s just done in World Cup qualifying. They didn’t pay attention to what he did in the French league. It’s nonsense.” 

American audiences couldn’t care less if Messi scored on a kids’ travel team. They just wanted to see him live. Inter Miami’s home attendance jumped 40%, the largest spike in the league. A Miami Herald analysis found that Inter Miami became the first MLS team to average more than 30,000 fans on the road. In October, Messi attracted a crowd of 62,124 to Soldier Field, a record for a Chicago Fire game. The Fire averaged crowds of 15,422 against the rest of the league. Messi sat out the game because of injury, but fans still showed up in pink jerseys.

In the 89th minute of Inter Miami’s game against New York, Messi shoved a perfect ball to Cremaschi, who was streaking down the right wing and preoccupying the attention of Red Bull keeper Carlos Coronel. Sensing an opening, Messi sprinted toward the goal: Cremaschi returned the pass, and Messi knocked in the easy shot. David Figueredo, a 38-year-old Argentine living in Brazil, called seeing Messi score that night the greatest moment of his life. “Hands down,” he said.

An hour or so after the game, dozens of fans still lined a street outside the stadium for a potential glimpse at the legend. Two Inter Miami team buses, with very tinted windows, pulled out. “I saw him!” one woman yelled. “He looked right at me!” As the bus exited the parking lot, some people chased it down the street. They kept running after the mere presence of Messi, cocooned in one of those vehicles, until the buses moved past a traffic light, toward the airport, into the night.

Inter Miami failed to make this season’s MLS playoffs. The team had dug too big of a hole before Messi arrived. But with training camp and a full season in store for next year, the team should fare better in the standings. “The most important thing right now is to recover well physically and also mentally, rest, spend time with my family, with my friends and then think about returning with the same desire as always and with some special challenges ahead,” Messi says. 

Lionel Messi Athlete of the Year 2023
After Inter Miami won the Leagues Cup championship against Nashville SC on Aug. 19.Chandan Khanna—AFP/Getty Images

“If we have a month to prepare, we’re going to be a huge team in this league,” says Cremaschi. “It’s going to be hard to beat us.” According to Cremaschi, players his age are already thinking about pursuing professional opportunities in MLS, rather than overseas, since Messi is elevating the league’s stature. Many other top international players—still in their prime—may test the MLS waters. “We are having conversations with people that would not even be remotely possible five years ago,” says Hunt, the FC Dallas president. “And I know we’re not the only ones.”

With the Messi effect at its peak, and the U.S. already considered a contender at the 2026 World Cup on home soil, America should do well against the world’s best for decades to come. “This is one of those big tipping moments,” says Hunt. “Our player pool from 17 to 35 is the greatest player pool we’ve ever had in the history of U.S. soccer. If you think about our player pool from 0 to 16, it’s going to be twice as good, because we have Messi inspiring them.”

On Nov. 10, Inter Miami organized Noche d’Or, an exhibition game to honor Messi for winning his eighth Ballon d’Or. Messi walked onto the field in Fort Lauderdale, raising his trophy to the adoring crowd. “What I would say to the fans is simply the same thing I said when I arrived,” Messi says. “We are going to have some very good times. We are going to compete to continue lifting trophies and enjoy ourselves.” —With reporting by Julia Zorthian

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com