Lionel Messi, Soccer’s Most Coveted Free Agent, Picks Inter Miami

Lionel Messi, who has captivated and to a large extent dominated global soccer for a generation, declared on Wednesday that the next stop in his glittering playing career would be the United States.

In an interview with two Spanish sports news outlets, Messi confirmed that he planned to sign a contract with Inter Miami, the M.L.S. team partially owned by David Beckham. He declined an offer to play in Saudi Arabia, which pays him to promote tourism in the kingdom and is seeking to build its national league by signing international stars.

“I made the decision that I am going to go to Miami,” Messi told Sport and Mundo Deportivo. “I still haven’t closed it 100 percent. I’m missing some things, but we decided to continue the path.”

M.L.S. acknowledged Messi’s decision in a statement, saying, “We look forward to welcoming one of the greatest soccer players of all time to our league,” but noted no deal had been completed. The league’s social media channels, meanwhile, were far less equivocating: The official M.L.S. account declared flatly that Messi was coming.

The finest player of his generation, and quite possibly the best of all time, Messi would arrive in M.L.S. having received every conceivable honor at the club and international levels: league titles in Spain and France; four Champions League trophies with Barcelona; and the Copa América and, last December, the World Cup with Argentina.

His status as the world’s best player made him an extremely valuable prospect as his contract with his current employer, Paris St.-Germain, ran down. Miami was far from his only option: Messi, 35, eschewed both a putative return to Barcelona and a monumental offer, said to be worth as much as $500 million, to move to Saudi Arabia, which has set out to lure a dozen of the finest players on the planet to the Gulf this summer.

Should the deal be completed, it would be the biggest coup for M.L.S. since it lured Beckham in 2007, when he joined the Los Angeles Galaxy. That deal shifted perceptions of the league’s quality and ambitions around the world; capturing Messi would, if anything, deliver even more attention to the league in the run-up to the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted by the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Messi admitted, in his interview, that Miami had perhaps not been his first choice of destination. Speaking to outlets that dedicate much of their coverage to Barcelona, the club where he became the finest player of his generation, Messi made plain that in an ideal world, he would have returned to Catalonia. He “obviously really wanted to return,” he said, and had discussed the idea with Xavi Hernández, the club’s manager, and Joan Laporta, its president.

Ultimately, though, Barcelona’s financial turmoil forced his hand. “I heard they had to sell players or lower salaries, and the truth is that I did not want to go through that,” he said, suggesting that he did not want to be held responsible for forcing Barcelona to adjust its squad simply to accommodate him.

“I wanted to make my own decision, thinking about myself and my family,” he said, describing a move away from Europe entirely as a chance to “look for something else, and find a little peace of mind.”

After 20 years as one of the finest players on the planet and seven months after leading Argentina to the World Cup, the one trophy that had previously eluded him, he said he wanted to “get out of focus a bit, think about my family.”

That led him to reject the chance to stay in Paris. He never truly settled into an attack featuring his fellow superstars Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, and his expected exit from P.S.G. was finally confirmed by the club on Saturday, hours before the team’s final game of the season.

“I would like to thank the club, the city of Paris and its people for these two years,” he said in a statement released by the club hours before he played, and lost, his final match with P.S.G. “I wish you all the best for the future.”

The club reciprocated by sending its “warmest regards” and thanking Messi for his service, but P.S.G.’s fans were less sentimental: They booed his name in warm-ups, did the same during the game and continued to show their displeasure during a celebration for the club’s latest French championship that followed.

Because he was out of contract, Messi’s options were the talk of soccer. Would he find a way to return to the club that had made him, Barcelona? Would he take his game, and his family, to a new adventure in the United States? Or would his salary demands so limit his options that he would have little choice but to accept the almost unfathomable offer he received from the Saudi club Al Hilal?

Saudi Arabia’s pitch was perhaps the most transactional: It could offer Messi a salary no other suitor could match, and he already had a relationship with the kingdom through a multimillion-dollar deal in which Messi had become a spokesman for the Saudi Tourism Authority.

“If it had been a question of money, I would have gone to Arabia or somewhere,” Messi said. Instead, though, he insisted his decision had been made for reasons other than the purely economic.

Barcelona, on the other hand, offered familiarity and a return to the club and city he never wanted to leave. Messi departed Catalonia for Paris St.-Germain in 2021 only when Barcelona found itself caught in a financial vise and unable, under the rules of the Spanish league, to sign him to a new contract.

But while the lure of returning to a club that revered him was strong, Messi explained that he did not want to find himself at the mercy of La Liga’s accountants. Though reports had emerged that Barcelona had struck a deal with La Liga to allow the club to complete his signature without breaking the competition’s salary rules, he was not prepared to take that risk.

“The time I had to leave, La Liga had also accepted that the club would sign me, and in the end it couldn’t be done,” he said. “Well, I was afraid the same thing would happen again.” He confirmed that his priority, in making his choice, had been the appeal of “not having to wait again.”

That gave Miami its chance, but — as was the case with previous stars — there was still a need for M.L.S. to get creative. It, too, offered Messi a bit of comfort: He owns at least one home in Miami, and basing himself there — and closer to Argentina — will make it easier for him to cultivate rich, new sponsorship opportunities in a huge commercial market.

But a base in the United States would also have appealed to him for competitive reasons, potentially making it easier for Messi as he prepares to help Argentina defend its World Cup title in 2026.

To make the numbers work, Inter Miami’s owners, which include Beckham, and Messi’s representatives cobbled together a layered offer: a roster spot free from the limits of M.L.S. salary rules; an ownership stake in Inter Miami once his playing career ends; and revenue-sharing agreements with Apple and Adidas, two companies with which Messi has long and lucrative relationships.

Those deals would be linked to increased sales for Adidas, which had previously signed Messi to a lifetime sponsorship deal, and to increased subscription sales for the Apple TV+ streaming service. Apple, which this year acquired the rights to broadcast M.L.S. games on the service, on Tuesday announced that it also would produce a multipart documentary series about Messi.

Any first look at Messi on the streaming platform in an M.L.S. game, however, will have to wait until the contracts are signed, and until the league reaches the start of its midseason transfer window on July 5.