It was one of the most spectacularly overblown, absurd moments in the history of sport. NBA superstar LeBron James had the world on tenterhooks for a full half-hour in 2010 as, by way of an ESPN television special titled simply, The Decision, the Cleveland Cavaliers ace turned his back on his hometown and revealed his new fate: “I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” Now, 13 years later, the Florida metropolis is gearing up to welcome its next sporting sensation, who made his own decision on Wednesday to end weeks of uncertainty.
Lionel Messi's own announcement was admittedly lower-key than James', if just as dramatic. The former Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona man and reigning world champion with Argentina chose a joint-interview with Catalan sporting media giants Sport and Mundo Deportivo to confirm that he would not be returning to Camp Nou after his two-year exile in the French capital, but instead is joining forces with MLS franchise Inter Miami. “I've made the decision to go to Miami,” he stated. “It is still not 100 per cent a closed deal, there are a few things still, but we have decided to continue our journey over there.”
It is a decision almost without precedent in the game. The shockwave can only be compared with Pelé, who, at 33 and after two glorious decades with boyhood club Santos, jumped into the unknown in the shape of the now-defunct North American Soccer League and New York Cosmos. The Brazil legend put the game on the map in the United States, the first step on a road that continued with the holding of the World Cup in 1994 and the launching of Major League Soccer, the first professional football venture to stand the test of time in the nation and which now is bigger, better and wealthier than ever.
But with all due respect to ‘O Rei’, this one tops the lot. Messi may be almost three years Pelé's senior but in football terms he remains at the height of his powers, as witnessed in his superlative displays at the World Cup to deliver Argentina's much-desired third triumph. Even at PSG, where he never truly felt at home after his abrupt exit from Camp Nou – “Two difficult years for me, in general, but which are now behind me,” he explained in Wednesday’s interview – his powers around the penalty area remained undimmed, as he contributed 32 goals and 35 assists in two campaigns to help the club stroll to two Ligue 1 titles in consecutive seasons, along with the French Champions trophy for good luck. It is clear that almost any team on earth would benefit from his unique talents, not least the side that took him to Europe as a teenager and watched him repay that gamble by inspiring the most dominant era in club history.
But in spite of the mutual affection between ex-team-mate and current coach Xavi and the Argentine, Messi was unwilling to watch and wait as Barça dragged their feet for another transfer window, prompting Wednesday's bombshell. A rather snide statement from the Catalans claiming he had picked Inter out of a desire for a “less demanding competition” and “less pressure” and their contention, contradicted by Leo, that they had extended an offer suggests that they are more concerned about letting the world know they tried to sign their former idol than in actually getting him to sign on the dotted line.
Barcelona's loss, then, and Inter and MLS' gain. For Messi too the benefits are as clear as day. After years of putting his body on the line for both club and country at the top level, the more sedate environ of Miami may allow him to extend his career for several years, saving his more intense performances for Argentina where he seems determined to continue for at least the immediate future and perhaps right through to the next World Cup in 2026 – perhaps not coincidentally, to be held in North America. There is little, if anything left for him to achieve in European football, while MLS promises not only ample quality of life but also the chance to become, like Pelé, a sterling ambassador for the game stateside.
The rest of us can only lament that one of the most electric talents ever to walk on to a football pitch is walking away from the elite level when he still clearly has more to give. But we may begrudge him this decision if it allows him to continue lighting up the Argentina team with his presence for years to come – while at the same time of course, scouring cable listings to ensure we do not miss a single Inter Miami game, or a single minute of this sporting wizard.