No more than a few hours passed from the time the private jet landed in Barcelona on a mid-September afternoon in 2019 to the time it took off again, bound for Paris.

The group on the plane, which included Inter Miami owners Jorge Mas and David Beckham, Beckham’s best friend, David Gardner, and former Inter Miami sporting director Paul McDonough, descended onto the tarmac and went straight into a van headed for a hotel, where they were whisked through a side door and ascended a private access stairwell to a suite. A few minutes later, Jorge Messi, the father of Lionel Messi, entered the room.

Around a large table that day began a courtship that led to the biggest signing in Major League Soccer history.

The meeting was conversational and focused more on the big picture, a get-to-know-you session more than a business pitch. Jorge Messi talked about the fact that his son had long planned to play in the U.S. He saw the impact of Beckham’s time in Los Angeles and liked the idea of helping to grow the sport.

Mas is the 60-year-old billionaire chairman of MasTec, a south Florida-based Fortune 400 energy infrastructure construction and engineering company founded by his father, the influential Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa. Mas often jokes to friends that he is always selling the city of Miami. On this day, he jumped into his usual spiel: Miami is a gateway to the world, a vibrant, passionate city. Many think of Miami as glamorous, but Mas sees it as a hard-working city, with a diverse immigrant community providing the underlying heartbeat. Inter Miami had yet to take the field as a team, but that’s what Mas wanted the club to represent: the entire mosaic of the Miami he loves so much.

The meeting in that hotel suite was an exchange of ideas and pleasantries, but Mas left feeling like he knew a little bit more about what was important to the Messi family. Over the next three and a half years, he maintained an open line of communication with Jorge Messi, speaking regularly and flying overseas to meet in person. He shaped his pitch around the ideas exchanged at the table that day.

On June 7, 2023 — 1,364 days after that first meeting — Mas was sitting at his desk in his office in Coral Gables, Fla., when he got the call with the news: Lionel Messi, seen as many as the best soccer player of all time, was coming to Miami.

Here, The Athletic details:

  • Why Messi chose Miami over Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia
  • How the courtship culminated in an announcement from Messi that, despite months of planning, caught many by surprise
  • Why Miami have given Messi equity in the club as part of his deal
  • Mas’ seat in Messi’s box at the World Cup final
  • The talks that brought Apple to the table, with Messi offered a share of new international subscribers
  • How Messi’s deal is structured to make him the highest-paid player in MLS history, and how corporate partners played a role in the negotiations.

In the minutes after the MLS board of governors meeting ended on Nov. 15, 2022, at the 1 Hotel in Brooklyn, league commissioner Don Garber, then-deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, chief financial officer Sean Prendergast, Inter Miami owners Jorge and Jose Mas and other league executives sat down together, away from where the team owners that also comprise the board mingled over a meal.

There was just one subject to discuss: Messi.

From the first days of joining the Miami ownership group, the Mas brothers had shown a level of ambition with Beckham to go after the biggest stars. A congratulatory video when the franchise was announced in 2018 included a message from Messi. None of the owners shied away from their desire to bring him to MLS.

More Messi reads you don’t want to miss:

  • Messi, Apple and the $2.5bn question
  • What’s he earning, how to watch him, how to buy tickets
  • How Beckham’s deal paved the way for Messi
  • Messi can live like a normal person in the U.S

“David and I have been working really hard, we have aspirations of bringing the best players here and Leo Messi is a generational player, arguably the best player of all time,” Mas told the Miami Herald in 2021. “I am optimistic Messi will play in an Inter Miami shirt because I think it will complete the legacy of the greatest player in our generation and will meet with the ambitions of the owners of Inter Miami to build a world-class team.”

Now, four years after that expansion announcement, the Mas brothers told the group at the 1 Hotel they were prepared to make a real push to sign the Argentine legend. They wanted to go over their initial ideas for how to put together a package attractive enough to lure Messi to MLS. Because of the designated player rule — adopted ahead of the 2007 season to allow the LA Galaxy to sign Beckham and which allows teams to sign three players who would otherwise break their salary cap — there were no limitations as to how much money Miami could pay Messi. No rule changes were needed.

But the Mas brothers understood it would take more than just money to compete with Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and rumored interest from the league in Saudi Arabia, a country with which Messi already had a formal and controversial agreement as a spokesperson. MLS would have to get creative. Among the ideas discussed that day was an equity stake in Inter Miami; a highly unusual move, but one that felt similar to the deal Beckham signed, which included an option to purchase the rights to an expansion team for a set $25 million fee.

Garber hinted at those early talks with the Mas brothers in a wide-ranging interview with The Athletic in March of this year, saying MLS would “run every opportunity down” for transcendent players such as Messi.

“You’re dealing with perhaps the most special player in the history of the game,” Garber said. “Teams have the flexibility to do unique things. … So whatever Jorge (Mas) decides, with (MLS executive vice president) Todd (Durbin’s) help to structure something, if we have the opportunity to do that, it’s going to be outside the box. Because as you all know what’s going on in international football today, with (Cristiano) Ronaldo at $100 million (salary) … the transfer market is just exploding in ways that are unimaginable. We’re gonna have to structure a deal that’s going to compensate him in ways that he and his family expect.”

That November meeting in the Brooklyn hotel helped to lay the foundation for what an offer to Messi could look like. Soon after, Mas boarded a plane to Doha, Qatar, for the FIFA World Cup. On the day of the final, a picture floated almost unnoticed on Twitter, but it was an important clue to the relationship Mas was building with the Messi family. It was a candid shot, snapped after regular time between France and Messi’s Argentina by an American fan from his seat at the Lusail Stadium in Doha.

He’s in the suit. (Mostly) Everyone else is wearing Argentina 10 kits.

— Jonathan Densa (@JonathanDensa) December 18, 2022

Mas was walking casually to his seat in a luxury box. He was in a suit. The others around him were almost all in Messi’s No 10 Argentina shirt. Mas was about 10 feet away from Jorge Messi during the most important moment of Lionel Messi’s career: a penalty kick triumph that ended any argument that he didn’t deserve a place alongside Pele and Diego Maradona as the greatest to ever play the game. Mas sat next to Atletico Madrid’s Argentine coach Diego Simeone during the game, living and dying with each goal like the rest of the world.

But while the photo was tweeted out into the social media ether, albeit with just one retweet and seven likes at time of publishing, Mas’ own tweet from the game did not mention anything about Messi, nor provide any hint of where Mas was sitting during the game.

Mas is a showman, he wants to entertain, but he felt there was an important element in the chase for Messi’s signature that could set Inter Miami apart from other bidders: discretion. Mas knew the Messi family would be facing pressures from every angle. He wanted Inter Miami to be the exception.

A few weeks after he returned from Qatar, when reports started to emerge that Messi had agreed a deal to extend his contract at PSG, Mas again stayed calm and tight-lipped. Internally, Inter Miami and Mas felt sure it wasn’t true. But they stayed patient. And quiet.

On April 4, the MLS board of governors met again, this time in Northern California. The formal meeting took place in Palo Alto, Calif., but owners also took a tour of the headquarters of their new media partners, Apple, in Cupertino, Calif. There, they sat for dinner with Apple executives.

It was in those meetings that Apple was looped in on the potential for Messi to come to MLS, a signing that would surely have a massive impact on audience and subscriptions for the MLS Season Pass app on Apple TV. Apple soon engaged in the idea of partnering with Messi as part of a deal to bring him to the U.S. Like the Mas brothers, Apple’s senior vice president of services, Eddy Cue, is a Cuban-American from Miami. The shared background helped foster a relationship, and while Inter Miami has not been directly involved in Apple’s discussions with Messi, Apple’s involvement undoubtedly added another compelling reason for him to choose MLS. Details of the agreement remain unknown, but negotiations included a revenue share with Messi for new international subscribers, among other things.

As the European season neared a close in early May, Mas knew it was time to try to close the deal with Messi. In addition to being a majority owner of Inter Miami, Mas is the president of Real Zaragoza, which plays in the second tier in Spain. That position provided some insight into the financial difficulties Barcelona would face to bring back Messi. Reports were now emerging that the Messi family had already informed PSG that Lionel would not return to the Ligue 1 side. Mas flew from Miami to Spain to meet with Jorge Messi.

The message in that final sitdown was the same as it had been over the previous months and years of conversations. Mas knew he would not be able to compete on pure financial terms with the deal offered from the Saudi Professional League, which reportedly exceeded one billion dollars. He felt, however, that Miami could offer something no one else could: changing the sport forever in one of the largest countries and markets in the world. He laid it out for Jorge Messi: Pele came to the U.S. in 1975 to grow soccer. Beckham came in 2007 to push MLS forward. Messi could effect change on an even greater scale in 2023.

“How many times in a lifetime do you get to change a sport?” Mas said as part of the pitch. “There will be a before and after Messi.”

Mas also felt like family would guide Messi, so he pitched Jorge Messi on what life could come for Lionel after soccer, too. The proximity to Argentina was important; Miami is a nine-hour flight to Buenos Aires, compared to 13.5 hours from Barcelona and more than 20 hours from Riyadh. So was a chance to be involved in the team and the sport in the U.S. once he walked away from playing. He could benefit from the impact he made on MLS well beyond the life of his contract. The offer to Messi included the equity in Inter Miami discussed at the November board meeting. The potential partnership with Apple and discussions with MLS apparel and merchandise partners Fanatics and Adidas, the latter of which Messi had already signed a lifetime contract, created further incentives.

The question was whether the Messi family saw the value in those opportunities the way Mas did. Miami had come close with many big names before. The club’s initial coaching search involved talks with Roberto Martinez, Marcelo Gallardo and Patrick Vieira. A list of potential DPs that never signed in those first years included Willian, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, which is who the group flew to see in Paris after that first meeting with Jorge Messi.

There was no guarantee a deal would be made.

Messi wanted a move back to Barcelona, the club where he built his career and won 10 La Liga trophies and four Champions Leagues. But the same dire financial situation that forced him to leave the club in 2021 was not much better. There were no assurances that the club would be able to register Messi even if it signed him, and a return likely would have forced the club to sell several other players. It would have been a difficult reunion.

Photographers try to get the best shot of Messi with the World Cup trophy (Photo: Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

“I had a lot of hope that I’d be able to come back (to Barcelona), but after living what I lived through and the exit that I had (from Barcelona), I didn’t want to come back to be in the same situation: to wait and see what was going to happen or leave my future in the hands of another person,” Messi would say later, in an interview with Barcelona newspapers Sport and Mundo Deportivo.

The end of his time in Paris was ugly. Messi was booed by some fans in his final game with PSG, with the feeling that he hadn’t embraced the club. He even had to issue an apology to fans after missing training to go on an unsanctioned trip to Saudi Arabia and was punished by the club. The big dream of winning PSG’s first Champions League title was not even close to being achieved.

Lastly, an offer was on the table from Al Hilal, one of the top teams in the Saudi Pro League. After Al Nassr signed Cristiano Ronaldo in December for what Saudi state media reported was $210 million per year, including image rights and commercial or ambassadorial deals, the Saudi Pro League, backed by Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, was making another push to sign many top players around the world. The big contracts coming out of Saudi Arabia have shaken up the global transfer market and wooed stars like 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and his France teammate, N’Golo Kante, who signed with Al Ittihad, Brazilian forward Roberto Firmino, who signed with Al Ahli, and Portuguese midfielder Ruben Neves, who signed with Al Hilal. But the ultimate target was Messi, and reports pegged the offer as high as $1.3billion over three years. It was an unprecedented amount for a playing contract.

Globally, few people expected Miami to win out. Messi was less than a year removed from winning the Golden Ball as the best player at a World Cup that he won with Argentina. He had 20 goals and 20 assists across all competitions for PSG, ranking among the most productive players across the top five leagues in Europe.

Even internally at Inter Miami, some staffers felt the odds were stacked against them. Mas, though, remained optimistic.

Six weeks after that big final pitch, Mas was behind his desk in Coral Gables. The office overlooks downtown Miami to the east, and to the north is the airport and the site where his club is building its stadium, a privately-funded project expected to cost $1 billion. A decision felt near, and even as Mas’s optimism held steady based on the tenor of the negotiations, the decision hung over everything else at the club. When the call came in that morning that Messi had chosen Miami, Mas did not pop any champagne or jump up to celebrate. He stood, walked out of his door, tapped on the glass of his brother’s office next door and beckoned Jose over to let him know the news.

There was excitement, of course, but there was also suddenly a lot of work to do. It wasn’t until hours later, as Mas descended in the elevator from the 12th floor to the seventh and gathered with staff in the Inter Miami offices to watch Messi’s interview announcement, that the reality truly hit him.

Throughout this process, Miami had seemed to many as almost an afterthought — fourth choice behind Barcelona, PSG and Saudi Arabia. Years had gone into this moment. So much of the future of the club, and maybe the league, would be determined by the words Messi said in this interview.

Mas knew what was coming, but to hear it out loud still changed everything.

“Tomé la decisión de ir a Miami,” Messi said.

“I made the decision to go to Miami.”

If those words set off celebrations in the Inter Miami offices, they caused a bit more of a maelstrom at MLS’ headquarters in New York. The league was well aware of the talks behind the scenes, but executives weren’t prepared for Messi to make that announcement at that time. No contract had been signed, no terms yet agreed. Owners started sending text messages to Garber to congratulate him on a massive moment for the league, but Garber had to let them know nothing was yet official. Eventually, Garber sent a note to the board communicating that a deal was not agreed. The league then put out a similar public statement.

“We are pleased that Lionel Messi has stated that he intends to join Inter Miami CF and Major League Soccer this summer,” the statement read. “Although work remains to finalize a formal agreement, we look forward to welcoming one of the greatest soccer players of all time to our league.”

The announcement initiated a hectic few days in MLS as the sides hammered out the terms of the deal. Eventually, however, the negotiations settled into the rhythms of a typical contract agreement. The addenda needed on the standard MLS contract for high-profile stars is not novel in MLS; the league has signed the likes of Thierry Henry, Kaká, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and others. But aspects of these deals bring different complications for each player, especially when considering tax implications and marketing rights. For this deal, which is valued between $50 million and $70 million annually, depending on the valuation of the equity in the team, the complications are ramped up even higher.

So while Messi’s announcement came on June 7, it took more than a month before the contract was fully drawn up and signed. Inter Miami led the way on those negotiations, though MLS’ player department and legal department supported the efforts, partly because every player in MLS actually signs his player contract with the league, which functions as a single entity, rather than with the individual teams. While the contract is with MLS, Mas and Inter Miami will be on the hook for all costs above the MLS maximum budget charge of $651,250.

In the interim period, there was an awkward dance around the reality of Messi coming. Ticket prices for Miami’s home and away games increased dramatically in anticipation of his arrival, yet as late as its July 4 home game, employees in Inter Miami’s team store at DRV PNK Stadium could not print “Messi” on jerseys or shirts.

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Messi hold the World Cup trophy in Qatar (Photo: Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

Miami, which sits in last place in the Eastern Conference, eight points below the playoff line, was also making other moves to improve. It agreed to terms with Messi’s former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets to join as a designated player. It also hired Messi’s former Barcelona and Argentina manager, Tata Martino, who won an MLS Cup with Atlanta United in 2018, as coach. Messi and his advisors were being kept in the loop on every decision, but Messi himself was on the road, first to China with the Argentina national team, then Rosario, Argentina, for his 36th birthday and two testimonial matches, and then on vacation in the Bahamas. As fans and league observers waited for an official announcement, Messi and his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo posted photos on their Instagram accounts of their vacation adventures — the Messi family sitting together poolside, Messi and Roccuzzo walking on the beach holding hands and the couple sitting on a jet ski, among others.

Finally, on July 11, Messi arrived at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. Cameras captured him walking off a private jet with his family. Yet, the waiting dragged on and on. The next couple days, Messi would be spotted around the Miami area. Cameras captured him emerging from a restaurant, Cafe Prima Pasta, in the North Beach neighborhood of Miami Beach, as well as grocery shopping at a Publix Super Market. He was also seen coming and going from the Inter Miami training facility. It became the world’s worst kept secret. Still, even with Messi being sighted around town and around the team, by early Friday morning his contract had still not yet been officially signed or announced by Inter Miami. It remained in the final legal stages. Messi had taken his medical and done photos and video with the team, but the official channels were silent.

At last, the deal was completed. The team made its announcement on Saturday, a day before the unveiling event they had organized for fans to attend and the world to see. There was no need for discretion or caution anymore.

The ‘Before Messi’ era in MLS is finally over.

(Top image: Getty Images; graphic: Sam Richardson)