Rocket man Messi ready to fire MLS lift-off
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Rocket man Messi ready to fire MLS lift-off

Lionel Messi said on Wednesday that he will sign for Inter Miami in Major League Soccer
Lionel Messi said on Wednesday that he will sign for Inter Miami in Major League Soccer

MIAMI - Argentine superstar Lionel Messi's impending move to Inter Miami is set to be the biggest deal in the history of Major League Soccer and turbo-charges the league's aim to enter the American mainstream.

Not since Brazilian legend Pele signed for New York Cosmos in 1975, has one of the all-time greats of the game played in the United States and his arrival is sure to set off an unprecedented level of hype.

It is hoped Messi, who won the World Cup with his country in December, will give a massive boost to the popularity of the league and the sport in the run up to the 2026 World Cup which the US is hosing along with Mexico and Canada.

While Pele's years in the old North American Soccer League (NASL) were only seen by fans at the stadium and on the occasional live broadcast, Messi's matches in the pink shirt of Inter Miami will be available worldwide.

MLS's 10-year deal with Apple TV, worth a reported $2.5 billion, will allow fans in 107 countries to watch Messi in action via a subscription.

"Pele changed the sport in North America by introducing people to what soccer is," former US international Taylor Twellman, now lead MLS analyst for Apple TV, told AFP.

"Messi will be all that and then some because MLS has the infrastructure and the World Cup to take this rocket ship to the moon," he said.

MLS and Apple will be hoping that the 35-year-old, seven-time Ballon d'Or winner's arrival will generate the kind of revenue that has so far eluded the 27-year-old league.

While MLS has grown to 29 clubs, with investors paying around $500 million for the next new team in San Diego, MLS remains far away from the levels of interest enjoyed by the NFL and NBA.

Apple TV along with MLS sponsors Adidas are reported to have played a key role in putting together the record deal which is certain to see Messi become the highest-earning player in the history of the game in the United States.

The last mega-deal for an international star that MLS pulled off was to bring David Beckham from Real Madrid to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007.

There is a direct link from that contract to Messi's deal -- Beckham was lured to MLS with the offer of an expansion team at a discounted rate and used that option to create Inter Miami, who entered the league three years ago.

Beckham remains a co-owner of Inter, who are currently bottom of the Eastern Conference and recently sacked manager Phil Neville.

The club's majority owner, Jorge Mas will be well aware that Messi's local impact will turn his club from a sideshow to headline act in South Florida.

- Calm Unlikely -

Miami has a large Argentinian community among its massive Latin American population and while Messi, on Wednesday, expressed a desire to have "more calm" in his life, that it is highly unlikely.

Mas and Beckham have spent five years trying to turn their dream of Messi in the Sunshine State into a reality.

Back in 2018, when Beckham announced that he finally had the go-ahead for his new team, Messi posted a social media video congratulating the Englishman.

"I wanted to wish you all the best in this new project, this new role for you," said the former Barcelona star.

"Who knows, maybe in a few years you can give me a call."

The call arrived -- three years later, Mas told the Miami Herald that he and Beckham were working hard on a trying to attract the player to their club.

"I am optimistic Messi will play in an Inter Miami shirt because I think it will complete the legacy of the greatest player in our generation," said Mas.

Messi is understood to have held discussions with Mas before eventually deciding to sign for Paris Saint Germain in 2021.

Whatever was said in those talks, they didn't deter Mas and Beckham from continuing to pursue Messi.

Mas attended the World Cup in Qatar, where Messi was to score twice in the final and raise the trophy, meeting with the player's advisors.

In April, Beckham was photographed with Messi at PSG's training ground, setting off another wave of rumours.

Whenever pressed club and MLS officials, pointedly refused to deny their interest in Messi, ensuring the speculation continued and the hopes of the fans remained raised.

One person kept quiet throughout though -- Messi himself.

On Wednesday he ended that silence and the speculation and started what may be the final chapter in his career but could be the start of a new era for MLS.

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