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Lionel Messi Chooses Inter Miami

Lionel Messi grimacing
Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Lionel Messi has decided to join Major League Soccer's Inter Miami, ending months of rumor, hype, and speculation over the next stage of his playing career. He'd delayed a choice between MLS and a gigantic offer from the Saudi club Al Hilal, reportedly in hopes that Barcelona could organize a legitimate contract offer, but in the end concluded—rightly—that those hopes were futile.

The choice, as weeks of anonymously sourced reports made clear, came down to guarantees. Back in 2021, Messi departed Barcelona in shock and tears, having worked in good faith to negotiate a contract with his lifelong club only to learn at the last minute that, due to its catastrophic Financial Fair Play situation, Barça wouldn't be able to register anything he signed. This time around, with Barça in much the same position—unable to register any new contract, but offering empty assurances that if he waited long enough it'd all work out—Messi and his father/agent Jorge knew better than to take anybody's word for it, especially with comparably trustworthy offers on the table from Inter Miami and Al Hilal.

Earlier this week, La Liga reviewed Barcelona's viability plan and reportedly informed the club that it would still have to operate in a sort of Financial Fair Play probationary zone, in which it can add new spending at only a 40-percent proportion to new income it brings in. Since, due to other La Liga rules, even a very cheap Messi contract would count some €25 million against Barça's balance sheet, that would mean the club could not register that contract unless and until it brought in some €62.5 million in player sales.

That determination likely was the death-blow to any hopes of Messi returning. Barça is not a mere one or two sales away from bringing in that much money, and none of the players it wants to sell have given the least indication they're interested in leaving. Even if the club does manage to persuade all of them, and to line up a good transfer offer for each, that could take months. That's months of uncertainty for Messi and his family, facing the possibility that they'd end up exactly where they were in August of 2021, with the realization that Barça's confident promises had amounted to nothing, and with a humiliated and heartbroken Leo then still needing to find someplace to play.

There may still be some stuff for him to sort out. Inter Miami is reportedly already well over MLS's modest salary cap, so it's hard to imagine how that club can pay any plausible salary that would convince Messi to turn down a billion euros from Al Hilal. This is interesting mostly for a chance to see how wildly MLS will contort itself to make it work; under no circumstances would that league's leadership scuttle a chance to add the greatest player of all time and one of the planet's biggest celebrities to its product. Previous reporting has suggested that third-party sponsors, such as Adidas and Apple+, will sweeten Messi's compensation on the side; sketchier rumors have had him getting a share of club ownership. Presumably more details will come along soon.

As for Barcelona, this perhaps takes some of the frantic urgency out of the club's desperate fire-sale attempts—but those attempts very likely will continue, as the blaugrana remain deeply broke, awry of Financial Fair Play, and in need of, at the very least, a replacement for departing captain Sergio Busquets. As with the Messi situation, the club cannot add and register a new player in that role until after it generates enough new income to cover that player's contract and then some. If the sales campaign might now be a little less rushed, it retains its potential to get very ugly.

Messi's departure to Paris Saint-Germain—because of its suddenness, and Leo's undisguised pain at having to leave, and the then-newness of Barça no longer having the financial might to just make happen the things it wanted to make happen—never felt like the true, official end of his time in Barcelona. This is more like the real thing. Barça likely is years away from financial stability, which at present is not even visible on the horizon; Messi will only get older, his playing prime further behind him. If this can finally, finally get the club, its leaders, and its fans looking forward and thinking about the future, that's a welcome change, if bittersweet and long overdue.

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