Football superstar Lionel Messi was named Athlete of the Year by TIME magazine on Wednesday, thanks in large part to his decision to bring his talents to Inter Miami and ultimately raise the profile of Major League Soccer.
The honour comes just over a year from Messi’s win with Argentina at the 2022 Fifa World Cup. In July, the 36-year-old left Ligue 1 leaders Paris Saint-Germain for Inter Miami.
Messi immediately made a splash with football fans in South Florida and beyond. Just after the news of Messi’s signing, Inter Miami’s Instagram followers exploded to 5.7 million, more than any NFL or MLB team.
Among the stars to watch Messi in person were previous TIME Athlete of the Year winner LeBron James, tennis star Serena Williams, music stars Diddy and DJ Khaled, and reality star Kim Kardashian. Football legend David Beckham — co-owner of Inter Miami — often was seen happily taking in the Messi show.
“You couldn’t have written it better,” Beckham told TIME about Messi’s debut in which he scored a late goal to seal a 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls.
“It was for MLS, and for America. It was for the future of the game.”
On the pitch, Messi notched a goal and two assists in six matches this season and helped Inter Miami defeat Nashville SC to win the Leagues Cup, their first major trophy. Although he missed half the season with an undisclosed injury and Inter Miami ultimately failed to reach the playoffs, Messi still won the prestigious global football award Ballon d’Or in October for the eighth time.
“From Day One, Leo arrives early, and he leaves later than any other player,” Beckham told TIME. “He’s the most professional player on our squad.”
The TIME Athlete of the Year award started in 2019 by honouring the US Women’s National Team as a whole for winning their fourth football World Cup title.
Other winners were gymnastics legend Simone Biles, baseball star outfielder Aaron Judge and James.
Luis Suarez will not find it difficult to adapt to life in MLS if he does join Lionel Messi at Inter Miami, Hector Herrera said.
Mexico international Herrera played alongside Suarez for two years at Atletico Madrid between 2020 and 2022. He is now in the US with the Houston Dynamo and could be about to welcome another familiar face to America’s top division.
With inputs from Reuters