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Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

The Greatest Soccer Player Ever is Coming To America. Why Am I Not Ecstatic?

June 08, 2023

In order to expedite growth, Major League Soccer chooses stars. It happened with David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Kaka, David Villa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The argument could be made their respective arrivals, as with all the other famous worldwide players who arrived at MLS, came with varying degrees of success. One thing they all have in common: they’re not Lionel Messi.

The greatest soccer player of a generation, potentially ever, is bound for America. As reported, he’ll join Inter Miami (partially owned by Beckham) when his contract runs out with Paris Saint-Germain on July 5. While the terms of the free transfer (no fee paid to PSG because his contract expires) are not known, it reportedly comes with profit sharing between Apple (Apple TV is home to MLS Season Pass) and Adidas. Whatever he’ll earn will be dwarfed by the windfall of income to whichever club Messi touches for 90 minutes at a time.

I’ve grown into a massive soccer fan in the last decade. Messi has been, in my eyes, the greatest player ever in that window. Undoubtedly he benefited from an insanely talented Barcelona team the majority of his professional career but his tactful, scrappy and artistic vision of the game is spellbinding. He withstands contact to attack the goal. The Argentina native sees openings for passes before they even materialize. He bends shots at impossible angles, some even from distance in free play or free kicks. As his career twilights (he’ll be 36 later this month), he’s adapted his game. No longer can he outrun defenders, he’ll instead use his experience to angle his body and bend his runs to maximize their danger.

Through his professional club career he’s scored 496 goals and 221 assists. He’s withstood the brunt of triple teams and the inevitable wrath of their frustrations when three wasn’t enough defenders. Yet he always raises to his feet and looks toward goal.

There are often occasions while watching Messi play in real time or in highlight reels where I can only gasp: “How?” And now Messi is coming to America, something that was discussed previously but almost seemed too good to be true. How? To answer the question directly, Beckham. The partial owner of Inter Miami knew the global spotlight that comes with the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. A romantic vision of returning to Messi’s beloved Barcelona vanished amid continued financial woes surrounding the club. (I won’t go into those but suffice it to say COVID played a massive recent role and presidential struggles play a longer-lasting role.) The answer to this “how” question also raises far more.

Messi was my favorite player for a long time. He’s a poet with a ball at his feet. Plucked from Rosario, Argentina, signed on a paper napkin, Barcelona agreed to pay for his dwarfism hormone treatments from when he was 13. (He’s grown now but at 5-foot-7 is still shorter than most of his professional peers.) He provided for his family, who moved with him to Barcelona. Messi became the greatest at Barcelona and, as such, garnered more power and pay. His family also asked for more pay, working largely as Messi’s representation and nothing else. He went to PSG when Barcelona could no longer afford him (his last deal was worth nearly $602 million over four years).

This is where the story turns. Paris Saint-Germain is owned by Qatar Sports Investments. It’s a subsidiary of the state-run Qatari sovereign-wealth fund. One of the most popular clubs in the world was purchased by a foreign state in 2011. Qatar also won a bid to host the World Cup, which FIFA moved to the winter to accommodate weather. In building the World Cup infrastructure, many migrant workers died. Spokespeople for the Qatari bid downplayed those deaths, as well as continued persecution of the country’s LGBTQ+ community. Despite years of planning, FIFA abruptly pulled alcohol sales at World Cup matches to meet Qatari requests. Many global soccer pundits pointed to the World Cup as a case of sports washing. At the end of the World Cup was Messi holding the only trophy that alluded him, wrapped in a special cloak just for this World Cup.

Messi is also the tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia. He earned $33 million in a year for that work, in addition to his $130 million salary and endorsements. The wealthiest athlete in the world accepted significantly more money to aid in sports washing yet again. It should be said Messi reportedly turned down a $440 million offer to join Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia this summer. Despite his decision to join Miami, he remains associated with Saudi Arabia, which continues to use its sports washing campaign to gloss over its various human rights violations. The same country that, to pick out a few examples, kidnapped and murdered an American journalist and played no small role in the September 11 attacks on America. Or, as professional golfer Bryson DeChambeau explained as part of the LIV-PGA merger earlier this week, “nobody’s perfect.”

I’m not a golfer. Frankly, there’s too many things I’d prefer to do for three hours. But I loved Messi. At least I used to. He’s an incredibly gifted athlete and I’ll love to watch him play in person. But every time I see him there’ll be at least one time I’ll remember what he endorses. And how the quiet, non-interesting subject of many biographies I’ve read aligns himself with human rights violations. Maybe the next time there’s a PGA Tour Championship or a Masters, a golf fan thinks about LIV. And maybe they’ll ask themselves how we got here.

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