2023 TIME Magazine Athlete of the Year is Lionel Messi, the soccer legend who signed with Inter Miami of the MLS last summer, making one of the most significant transactions in the history of the sport in America.
The United States, the richest sports market in the world, had never completely embraced the beautiful game, for reasons that have been debated for decades, “Sean Gregory, senior sports reporter for TIME, wrote. But recently, the sport has grown remarkably, and in the ensuing three years, the United States will host three significant international championships. It will undoubtedly draw in more admirers. Messi, though, is a catalyst. The world’s most admired and powerful sportsman will be playing in Miami for the next two years, and he will be playing at the highest level possible—the United States is officially a soccer nation. A country that plays football.”
The 2024 Copa América, which will only be broadcast in the United States on the FOX network and FOX Sports App starting next summer, the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup, and the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup are the three main events that the United States will host.
Messi’s arrival at Inter Miami and the Big League Soccer (MLS) less than six months after leading Argentina to an incredible triumph in the 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup is, of course, a big factor in Messi’s influence on American soccer. Messi, 36, has not ruled out competing in 2026, but the Copa America in 2024—which Argentina will also participate as the defending champion—may be his final significant international competition.
Messi’s choice was particularly remarkable because, after it was determined that a return to his native European club Barcelona was not possible, he declined a huge offer to play in the Saudi Pro League, where he would have rejoined long-time rivals Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in addition to number of other European club stars who had signed lucrative contracts.
“The truth is that fortunately, I had several options on the table that were interesting, and I had to analyse them and think, even weigh them up with my family, before making the final decision to come to Miami,” Messi explained to TIME. It’s also true that after that, I gave the Saudi League a lot of thought because I know the nation, and they’ve established a fiercely competitive league that has the potential to grow into a major one soon.
As the nation’s tourism ambassador, I was drawn to the place because, among other reasons, I have always enjoyed travelling there, football is becoming more and more popular there, and there is a lot of work being done to establish a Premier League. It was either Saudi Arabia or Major League Soccer, and I found both to be intriguing.”