After winning the World Cup with Argentina and taking the U.S. by storm with his move to Inter Miami, Lionel Messi was named TIME's Athlete of the Year on Tuesday.
The accolade celebrates the impact he has already left in the early days of his MLS stay, both culturally and financially. Messi also told TIME that rejoining Barcelona was his first choice for a move, but that in the end, it was between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia before he eventually picked Miami.
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"The truth is that fortunately, I had several options on the table that were interesting, and I had to analyze them and think, even weigh them up with my family, before making the final decision to come to Miami," he told the publication. "My first option was to return to Barcelona, but it was not possible. I tried to return, and it did not happen."
"It is also true that later I was thinking a lot about going to the Saudi league, where I know the country and they have created a very powerful competition that can become an important league in the near future," he continued. "As the country's tourism ambassador, it was a destination that attracted me, especially because I've enjoyed everything I have visited, because of how football is growing in the country and because of the effort they are putting into creating a top competition."
Messi's Miami move has been met with some of the most notable fanfare American soccer has seen, with crowds turning up even for games he eventually did not play and sporting icons and celebrities alike showing up in stadiums they rarely frequent.
There have been financial benefits to those in Messi's ecosystem. Apple, MLS' media partner, added around 110,000 subscribers to their league-specific streaming service on the day of the player's debut, and said their subscriber numbers in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Europe "went from basically zero to moving the needle in a huge way." Messi himself will benefit from that growth -- his MLS deal includes revenue sharing with Apple.
Miami's home attendance jumped 40% after his arrival and the team is also the first in MLS to average more than 30,000 away fans. Other MLS clubs also say Messi's move has opened up a new pool of elite players that may not have otherwise been interested in a move to North America.
The hope is that Messi's time in MLS will serve as a catalyst for soccer's growth in the U.S., especially ahead of the 2026 World Cup hosted by the nation.
"My biggest message to him was 'Listen, few times in history has an uber-athlete been in a position to change a sport in a country,'' Miami co-owner Jorge Mas told TIME. "'You have the opportunity to change the sport in the largest commercial market in the world, which is the United States of America.'"