Lionel Messi is the world’s most famous footballer. Whether you consider him soccer’s GOAT or not, there is no denying he is the sport’s most recognizable name.
Almost synonymous with Messi is his club, FC Barcelona. The Messi family relocated from Argentina to Spain when Lionel was just 14 so he could train with the club. Since then he has made 731 appearances for Barça. Camp Nou has seen football legends like Iniesta, Ronaldinho, and Eto’o cycle through. Yet, the club’s primary star has remained constant. But with Messi’s contract coming to an end in 2021 and unprecedented turmoil plaguing the club, his future is not quite certain.
Following an 8-2 dismantling at the hands of German side Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Barcelona fired manager Quique Setin. Days later, Catalonian radio station RAC 1 reported that Messi and Setin’s successor Ronald Koeman met to discuss the future of the club; during that consultation, the Argentinian reportedly told Koeman he wants out. This leak angered Messi and furthered his distrust in the club, per Marca.
Messi’s Potential Future
Messi’s contract includes a €700 million (over $826.5 million) minimum buyout clause. English football site Goal reports that Barça will not listen to offers below that number. Such a move would be the most expensive in football history. Neymar’s move from Barcelona to French club Paris-Saint Germain holds the current record. That deal was worth €222 million ($262.1 million), under a third the cost of Messi’s minimum cost.
So what’s next for Messi? Oddsmakers have him equally likely to move to either English side Manchester City or Italian club Inter Milan. Man City must first do some serious accounting work in order to find such funds after breaching UEFA FFP. A move to Milan would renew the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry; the Portuguese forward moved from Real Madrid to Juventus in 2018.
Why Not the MLS?
But an unlikely suiter may appeal to Barça president Josep Bartomeu: the MLS. The American soccer league has a reputation for taking in aging stars and granting them a few more years of their fleeting stardom. The likes of David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic were all over 30 when they debuted for their MLS side. Messi is 33, 34 next summer. While his magicianship on the pitch still cannot be overstated, the decline is nearing. Age is just an insurmountable hill, especially for players like Messi who rely on their agility and technical mastery. Considering his rapport as a hero for club and country combined with the rapidly approaching uphill battle against sporting elderliness, Messi makes a natural option to be the MLS’s shiny new toy.
One obstacle in getting Messi to join the MLS would be convincing him to sign with a club. The league’s unique Designated Player Rule would allow teams to meet his punitive salary demands. But being offered the same contract from an MLS side and a club as big as Man City provides little incentive to pick the American option.
Path to MLS Stardom
While the MLS is far more competitive on a year-to-year basis than La Liga, Messi would be so overwhelmingly dominant that the league could hardly be fun. In his first year, he could easily clear Carlos Vela’s 34 goals in a season record. Carlos Valderrama’s record 26 assists in a season has not even been contested since it was set in 2000, something that Messi could easily smash. As much as he would surely love to add to his already chock-full résumé of personal accolades, there is little fun in doing so against no competition.
Counteracting that negative is the prospect of playing under fellow soccer icon David Beckham. Beckham played five years in the MLS and is unofficially recognized as the cause for their Designated Player Rule. Beckham is the president and co-owner of the upcoming MLS expansion side Inter Miami. For years, the Englishman has been vocal in his praise of Messi. In 2013, he told Argentinan news outlet Télam “[Cristiano] Ronaldo doesn’t reach the level of Messi.”
When Miami and Beckham’s team were granted a franchise in 2018, Messi took no time to congratulate his friend. In a video to Beckham that the recipient then shared via Instagram, Messi said “who knows, in a few years maybe you will give me a call.” Whether or not the comment was playful banter or a serious inquiry is unknown, but regardless the two are shown to have a liking for one another.
It Will Take a Lot
Even if Miami (or another club) can draw Messi away from the glamour of European football, an equally Herculean task will be to provide an offer to Barça that meets their requirements. The minimum €700 million deal would triple the world transfer record. It would also be worth 51 times more than the next most expensive MLS transfer. Clearly no individual club has that sort of transfer budget.
In short, there is little to no chance Messi comes stateside, at least not yet. Unlike the other European stars to cross the pond, Messi is still very much in his prime. He still has immense value to a team competing for European silverware. A move of this magnitude has never happened in sports. This is not LeBron taking his talents to Miami, nor is it Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles. This would be the equivalent to Michael Jordan joining the EuroLeague after his first three-peat; Tom Brady playing Canadian Football after winning the ’07 MVP. But if Lionel Messi were to come to the MLS, the league could catapult its international reputation forward ten times over.