Like a lot of wealthy Latin Americans, Lionel Messi is moving to Miami. Unlike most of them, however, he could live anywhere — and if he had decided on Riyadh, he could’ve been a billion dollars richer. So why has the world’s most famous football player decided to end his career with a last-place team in a country where the sport is at best the fourth-most-popular?
First the professional reasons. After winning the World Cup in December, Messi has achieved everything in football: Ballon d’Or awards, European titles, league titles. He will be 36 in just two weeks, but he can still play at the top level for a couple more years. Staying at Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, where he was regularly whistled by French fans, wasn’t an option. Returning to Barcelona, the club of his life, would have produced the “Last Dance" that his fans in Catalonia and around the world wanted*. Yet Barça’s dire financial situation and complicated politics made a deal difficult.
That left two “money options" on the table: Inter Miami and Saudi Arabia, for which Messi has done some work as tourist ambassador.
Messi is already one of the world’s richest athletes, so maybe earning more money isn’t exactly a priority for him. Still, it takes some nerve to say no to the reported US$1 billion that the Saudis offered. If you don’t believe me, ask his nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo — or the PGA Tour.
The details of Messi’s Miami agreement aren’t yet public, but the reported profit-sharing arrangements with Apple and Adidas would make the deal richer. He could be following the model of Pelé — the other contender for the sport’s best ever, who in 1975 famously signed for New York Cosmos — and be betting that “soccer" finally takes off in the world’s largest economy. He might also be thinking of David Beckham, who moved in 2007 to the MLS, bringing his career to a quiet end but his celebrity to a new (and more lucrative) level.
And finally there are the personal reasons: Messi is “a family man, very stable in his personal life, so as a brand he is very different than Ronaldo’s," says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in Paris. Messi already owns an apartment in Miami and likes to spend holidays there. In Miami, Messi said in an interview about the move, he and his family would have a different lifestyle, “enjoying much more the day to day."
Of course, Messi is still a competitor — and playing for a losing team in a second-rate league will be hard. Where will he get his motivation? The answer is clear: He remains captain of the Argentina football team. He is now enjoying the limelight of success after years of painful defeats; and he has the challenge to retain the Copa América, which will be played in the United States next year. The lower-intensity environment of the US league could even prolong his international career. The World Cup, remember, is in North America in 2026.
Sure, he could have made more money in Riyadh. And yes, it would have been emotionally satisfying for him to end his career in Barcelona. But this arrangement may allow Messi to help Argentina defend its World Cup title. As a fellow Argentine, I am quite pleased with Messi’s career move.
*Juan Pablo Spinetto is a Bloomberg News managing editor for economics and government in Latin America.
by Juan Pablo Spinetto, Bloomberg