Superstar soccer player Lionel Messi on Wednesday surprised many by announcing that he would begin the next phase of his storied career not in Saudi Arabia, but in the United States, joining the Major League Soccer (MLS) team Inter Miami.
Messi, who has won the Ballon d'Or as the world's best player seven times, said, "After winning the World Cup and not being able to return to Barcelona, it was my turn to go to the league of the United States to live football in a different way and to enjoy the day-to-day."
The 35-year-old has spent the past two years at French club Paris Saint Germain and has racked up more than 800 goals in his career, the majority of them at Barcelona. Only his great contemporary rival Cristiano Ronaldo has more.
He also moves to the US just a few months after finally securing a World Cup trophy with Argentina, in what most considered to be his last realistic chance to lead his country to the title, adding the finishing touch to his long-glittering list of club-level and individual accomplishments.
Ticket prices go through roof in anticipation of debut
Messi's first game in Miami will likely be in July, and fans responded to the surprise news of his move to Florida by rushing to try to grab tickets on the secondary market, websites usually where people try to sell on tickets they have purchased.
According to tracking website TickPick, the cheapest available ticket for Miami's opening game of the season against Cruz Azul on July 21 was just $29 (roughly €27) on Tuesday, but by Wednesday that figure had risen to $329.
It shows the draw Messi still commands, even if no longer quite at the peak of his powers; he's arguably still the most recognizable and marketable name in the game.
Following in Beckham's footsteps, perhaps with eye on future
The Reuters news agency reported that one reason for Messi's shock decision not to follow his longstanding rival goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia was that the Argentine wanted to join a club where he could eventually have an ownership stake.
That's a similar path to another big-name MLS signing of recent years, David Beckham, who is now part owner of Inter Miami.
Although Beckham and his pop star wife brought a celebrity to the MLS that perhaps even Messi can't rival in every area, the Argentine is on a different plane on the pitch.
"He is the most recognizable and the best soccer player on the planet at the same time," said Eric Wynalda, a former US national player and soccer broadcaster who currently hosts a show on SiriusXM. "Not only will it be about an attraction, it will also be about getting a chance to see greatness."
Biggest US signing since New York Cosmos era? Or ever?
Many legendary European and South American players have wound down their careers in the US, but Messi at least remains near the very peak of his powers.
In terms of his prominence and profile, probably only the New York Cosmos of the mid-1970s could rival the signing of Messi, having at one stage attracted Brazilian legend Pele, German superstar Franz Beckenbauer and others onto the same squad.
That star-studded lineup couldn't be said to have thrust the game into the national imagination in the US, just as the MLS foundation and the 1994 World Cup, Beckham's move and others can't. But all have probably contributed to a steady increase in popularity, as has the highly successful women's game in the US.
And Messi's move coincides with the latest push to make the game a true rival to established US sports domestically, centered around the upcoming 2026 World Cup hosted across 16 cities in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
It's not clear whether Messi will still be a factor for Argentina's national team by then, and it would be beyond impressive considering that the tournament should take place around the time of Messi's 39th birthday. But if the past 20 years have shown football fans anything, you dismiss the slippery left-footer at your peril.
msh, js/sms (AP, dpa)