Lionel Messi has been named TIME Magazine’s 2023 Athlete of the Year for his instant impact in raising the profile of soccer in the United States.
Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain announced he was joining Inter Miami in June after a move back to his beloved Barcelona failed to materialise, leaving him with a choice of MLS or Saudi Arabia.
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He opted for Miami, snubbing the reported $400million a year on offer from the Middle East.
He told TIME: “The truth is that fortunately, I had several options on the table that were interesting, and I had to analyse them and think, even weigh them up with my family, before making the final decision to come to Miami.
“My first option was to return to Barcelona, but it was not possible. I tried to return, and it did not happen.”
— TIME (@TIME) December 5, 2023
Messi has been widely criticised for holding a lucrative ambassadorial role with Saudi Arabia, a country with an appalling human rights record.
But the 36-year-old says the Saudi Pro League, where he would have joined Neymar, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, was given serious consideration.
“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.”
Luckily for MLS, he opted for South Florida where he predictably made an immediate impact, grabbing an injury-time winner on his debut before leading the franchise to their first piece of silverware when they clinched the Leagues Cup.
It’s not just on the pitch where his impact has been felt. Sales of Inter’s pink shirts have gone through the roof, TV ratings have surged while sold-out stadiums are now the norm when Messi is in town.