“This will be up there with the biggest moves in American sporting history.”

The words of David Beckham on signing Lionel Messi to the club he co-owns. Where some would seek to temper expectations, Beckham chooses to amplify them.

“And we’re talking about the biggest sporting market in the world. Bringing Leo Messi to Inter Miami, to MLS, the year after he wins the World Cup, to a team that is three years old… it’s a hell of an achievement.”

An achievement comparable to those the former England captain enjoyed as a footballer? “I never thought I would have the same feeling as an owner as I had when I was a player,” Beckham says of the moment he got the news Messi had chosen to join Miami. “When I got the phone call, I had the feeling I had when I walked out at Old Trafford or Wembley. I was like, ‘We’ve just beaten all competition to sign the greatest player to ever play our game’.”

It is hard to overstate the magnitude of this moment for Inter Miami, Major League Soccer and the U.S. more broadly — especially as it prepares to co-host the 2026 men’s World Cup with Canada and Mexico — and impossible to predict the effect Messi could have in the years ahead. Scoring a stoppage-time winner on his debut last week — 16 years to the day Beckham made his MLS debut — and following that up with two goals and two assists in a 4-0 win in his second game four days later certainly qualifies as a decent start.

Messi signed a deal that runs until winter 2025, worth about $50million-$60million (£39m-47m) annually, but his arrival is the culmination of a decade-long pursuit which Miami hope will prove priceless. That process was led by Beckham in conjunction with his Inter Miami partners, brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, the trio embarking upon an ambitious operation that came to fruition when many doubted it would.

On the eve of Messi’s Miami debut, Beckham sat down with The Athletic in his office at the club’s Fort Lauderdale training base to conduct a rare one-on-one interview.

Despite being renowned on and off the pitch for his timing, Beckham was uncharacteristically late to our meeting. Why? A photoshoot — with Messi, the Mas brothers and the official contract — that took longer than planned to complete.

Beckham can be forgiven. Like Miami acquiring Messi, he was worth the wait as we discussed how this deal happened, his thoughts on former club Manchester United’s ownership, the questions over him taking money from Qatar and a hint at what the future holds.

“It all came from a conversation over a glass of wine at dinner,” Beckham says.

“I turn to Jorge and say, ‘One day, we need Messi to come to our club’. It was probably when we first met. I actually found on my phone the other day one of the first presentations that (advertising agency) Doubleday & Cartwright did — they mocked up one of the jerseys with the logo on and Leo was wearing it. That was 10 years ago. So it was always in my mind. I suppose every owner of a sports franchise thinks, ‘We want to bring the best players to our club’. Does it happen for everyone? Of course not. But we were sat at dinner and we were like, ‘OK, if we could bring Leo for our market, for our fans, for this part of the world, there’s no one better’.”

Fast forward to September 2019 (months before Inter Miami played their first MLS match) and an initial meeting that set the wheels in motion. “We got on a plane and flew to Barcelona from London secretly,” explains Beckham of a covert trip to the city where Messi was then playing his football. “We snuck into a hotel, met Jorge Messi (Lionel’s father and also his agent) and started the conversation. It purely went, ‘We would love your son to play for our team one day. We know he can’t come yet, but one day we would love to have Leo in Miami’.

“Then obviously Jorge (Mas) did an incredible job creating a narrative around what he could do for the sport in this country, what he could do for MLS and what he could do for Inter Miami.”

Beckham’s career served as a strong reference point. He excelled at Manchester United and Real Madrid before switching to LA Galaxy in 2007; in its own right, a game-changer for MLS. “I think what helped with Leo is he’d seen my journey and what was possible,” Beckham says.

“When I made the move, I was 32 and had come from Real Madrid. I got criticism because I was going to a league that had 13, 14 teams and only six stadiums that were soccer-specific. A few people of a high level did hit out, but I was ready for the challenge. People were saying, ‘You’re chancing this’. For me, it was never about that. I’ve always loved America, loved the opportunity America bought to the world and loved the scale. I always thought if I could ever live in America and do something that was going to change the face of the game here — and bring what I knew from Europe to this part of the world — I want to be part of that.

“I’m not saying it was solely down to me because it wasn’t. There were an incredible amount of people that did incredible jobs to bring me to LA when the league was struggling, but they had the vision and commitment. I think Leo had seen that and thought, ‘OK, this is an opportunity’. He also saw that this is a long-term project. If we lost our first two games with Leo, I’m not worried about that. I want to win. Leo wants to win. Jose and Jorge (Mas) want us to win. But more importantly, this is a long-term project. That’s how I’ve always seen it. It’s how Leo sees it.

Beckham feels his own experiences playing in the U.S. aided Messi’s decision (Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)

“Leo has now won everything you can as a player. The World Cup must have been the icing on the cake. He saw this as a project, a legacy and I don’t think many players see that. They see the opportunity to play in different places, but Leo saw he could not just change the face of football in this country, he could inspire the next generation and there’s no better way of doing that than by walking on our pitch in Miami and having all of the kids talking about him, watching and learning. He’s also about making this game bigger and better in this country — he could do that, he will do that and he already has done that. It’s not just the whole of Miami talking about Leo, it’s the whole of America, the whole world.”

Messi, who turned 36 last month, rejected a more lucrative proposal from the expanding league in Saudi Arabia, a country for which he is already a tourism ambassador. Beckham describes the growth of Saudi football as a “great thing” and “healthy competition”, but clearly feels Messi can have a greater impact in the United States.

Beckham, now 48, is perched in a cream-coloured armchair, dressed in a sharp navy suit and light blue shirt, his hair impeccably styled, his demeanour fresh and alert as his squad are put through their paces down in the gym, which his office overlooks courtesy of a floor-to-ceiling window.

It is a far cry from his whereabouts when Messi finally announced his next destination on June 7 after two seasons with Paris-Sait Germain.

“I was in Japan with the family and woke up at 5am because my phone kept vibrating,” Beckham remembers. “My wife (former Spice Girls pop star Victoria) was like, ‘Really?! Turn your phone off!’. I look on my phone and I’m like, ‘What’s happened? Something’s happened!’. I put my glasses on and I’m like, ‘Leo’s coming! It’s done! He has announced it!’. My wife was like, ‘What do you mean he has announced it?’. I said, ‘He has gone on TV and said he’s coming to Inter Miami!’.

“I get goosebumps talking about it.

“I phoned Jorge (Mas) straight away and got emotional because I know what we’ve gone through over the last few years. Trying to build this club, the obstacles, the challenges — trying to get land (to build a stadium), going to legal battles… for all of the problems we’ve had, this one moment changed everything. It changed our whole club. Once Victoria woke up properly, she hugged me, and that’s when I got emotional again.

“I have come in every single morning at 7.30am to just see him — to just know it’s real.”

“Among the best moments of your life?” I ask.

“Without a doubt,” he replies. “Without a doubt.”

When Beckham transferred to LA Galaxy, the deal included an unprecedented option to buy an MLS expansion franchise anywhere bar New York City for $25million after he stopped playing in the competition.

The clause was activated in 2014, the team gained approval from the league four years later and Inter Miami played their first MLS match in March 2020. For Beckham, it was the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. “When I look back and think of the journey we’ve gone on over the last 10 years, it makes me feel tired!” he says, smiling.

“There have been ups, downs, pandemics, obstacles, challenges. But I always knew, and I’ve always said, that this will be the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I always said that one day I’d love to own my own team. Coaching, managing… that has never been something that really interests me. I love coaching kids but going into management was never something I wanted to do. When all the lads at United were doing their coaching badges, I had no interest.

“But when I knew I had the opportunity of owning my own team, that was something I thought, ‘This is legacy. This is how I want to repay a sport that has given me so much over the years’. I remember announcing the team and thinking, ‘Within two years we’ll have a stadium, we’ll have the team up and running — easy! We’ll be in the league, win an MLS Cup (as league champions) in our first year’. It could not have gone more differently to that.

“It was a struggle from day one to find land, find the right people, find the right partners. It got to the point where I was asked by the league to sell it back because it was so complicated. It has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Beckham grimaces as he reflects on days spent travelling to talk to government officials in the U.S., having potential stadium sites recommended, agreeing to proceed and taking flights back to the UK full of excitement, only to discover upon landing in London that they had been denied the land. He identifies the Mas family and in particular the “business brain” of Jorge as a “crucial” factor in helping to achieve a successful outcome, adding: “I was never, ever going to sell it back. I was never, ever going to let this opportunity go. Because for me, this was my legacy in the game.”

It is perhaps surprising to find Beckham so engaged with daily matters at Inter Miami considering his wealth and the extent of his other commitments. The ex-midfielder admits he does not _need _this but _wants _it. “I like to be busy,” he says. “I like to work. I’ve come from a working-class family in the east end of London. My mum and dad worked their backsides off. My dad was still working when he was 71, 72 years old.

“About eight or nine years before I retired, I knew I had to have a plan. When we did my contract for LA and put the option (to buy a franchise) in, I knew that was going to be my baby. The moment I retired, the next day I got on a plane. I flew to Miami without any rest, without going on holiday, sitting on a beach, relaxing — which most players do when they retire and that is understandable. I knew I had to start from the moment I finished playing.

Beckham takes huge interest in Miami’s training facilities (Photo: Getty Images)

“I’m over every single detail of this club, whether it’s the design of the gym and offices, if the players need fans with the (cooling) spray on… all of those things I’m making sure are OK because when you bring players in like Leo, (his long-time Barcelona team-mates) Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, they’re used to a certain level. It’s not to say they’re treated differently to the rest, but it’s about bringing professionalism into a club.

“When I moved to LA, it wasn’t the level of play that bothered me, it was more the professionalism that ran through the club. For instance, there were no pre-match meals; I remember eating Cheesecake Factory (desserts) before a game! Those things changed very quickly and when Bruce Arena (Galaxy’s coach from 2008-16) came in, everything changed.

“I don’t pick the (Miami) team. I don’t control anything on the field, in training, in matches. That’s down to the coaching staff. But I’m over recruitment with Chris (Henderson, the sporting director) and Jorge. We are constantly looking at ways to bring this club up to the level that we expect. We always believe we can bring this club up to compete with European clubs in the future. The teams I’ve played with over the years, some of them are 100 years old and more. We’re only three years in. But that is the level we feel we can get to.”

Once Inter Miami had the green light to be formed, Beckham turned to the aforementioned advertising agency in New York to design a crest; he wanted a badge with “depth”, one that “people can relate to”, “screams Miami”, “creates a culture” and also stays “relevant”. To a man nicknamed “Golden Balls” in his playing days, image matters.

“I said, ‘What I want is the New York Yankees’,” Beckham says. “‘Whether you’re a baseball fan, whether you’re a fan of the Yankees, whether you love New York, I want to create a brand like they have. You see the Yankees hat and straight away you know what it is. I want people walking around in our baseball caps knowing that’s a Miami cap, that’s a Miami brand. (That) Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you want to wear the jersey and the cap.”

Recently, the brand has been outperforming the team.

Miami are bottom of the Eastern Conference in MLS after 22 of the regular season’s 34 games and were winless in nine MLS fixtures before Messi’s intervention in the past week brought two wins in the group stage of the Leagues Cup, a competition where MLS sides mix with teams from the Mexican top flight.

The fact there is no relegation from MLS maybe reduces the pressure to sack managers, but during that period, head coach Phil Neville — Beckham’s friend and former club and country team-mate — was replaced with Tata Martino, who previously coached countryman Messi, Busquets and Alba at Barcelona in the 2013-14 season.

(Photo: Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Yes, we have a great brand, but the most important thing is what we do on the pitch,” Beckham says. “Unfortunately as an owner, you realise you have to make tough decisions. We had Diego Alonso in the first season and scraped through to the play-offs (by finishing 10th in the 14-club Eastern Conference).

“I thought it was the right time to make a change. I felt culturally we weren’t quite there and I went back to my roots. I went back to what I know and to thinking, ‘We need someone in this building who is going to be over everything — turn up at 6am and leave at 7pm, work, bring a culture and give everything, not just to Inter Miami, but to the city and really dive in with his family’. That’s exactly what Phil did.

“I’ve known Phil for a long, long time, so bringing him in was an important move and he did an incredible job over the couple of years he was here, with the players and the staff. He brought a seriousness that we didn’t have. But on the field, we weren’t quite right and, unfortunately, we felt there needed to be a change.”

Neville’s fate was relayed to him on a call from Beckham and Jorge Mas — “he knew it was coming and took it like a gentleman” — and now Martino will attempt to oversee an upturn in fortunes. As well as this 100 per cent start to the League Cup, Miami are through to next month’s semi-finals of the U.S. Cup — America’s version of the FA Cup.

“I’m not embarrassed because we’ve come a long way and I’ve realised things of value can take time to build,” Beckham says. “But I want to be better, I don’t want to look at the league table and always think, ‘Are we going to win tonight?’. Because I spend most of my time in London, I’m sat up at 2am watching the games and when we lose it’s frustrating. I don’t enjoy being bottom of the league, I want better results, but I do also understand that there needs to be a certain amount of patience.

“I said to Jorge from day one: the reason Manchester United were so successful is because there was stability. I had one manager throughout my whole career there and that stability runs through the whole club. So when we bring a coach in, I feel that coach should be here for the next 10 years. That’s the way that we’re going to have success.”

That United manager was Sir Alex Ferguson and since he retired in the summer of 2013, stability at the club has been conspicuous by its absence. Eight men have subsequently assumed permanent or temporary control of the Old Trafford team — the latest being summer 2022 appointment Erik ten Hag.

At last, things appear to be improving.

In his debut campaign, Ten Hag won the Carabao Cup, reached the FA Cup final and returned United to the Champions League through a third-place finish in the Premier League. Yet they were still overshadowed by Manchester City, their local rivals matching United’s historic 1998-99 treble to confirm a role reversal on the dominance United engineered in the era of Beckham and Ferguson.

In the background, United are plagued by uncertainty over their ownership. Eight months ago, the club’s American owners, the Glazer family, opened the door to a sale, but there remains little clarity as to whether that will happen, or when.

“It hasn’t been the greatest of times for Manchester United, on the field or off the field,” Beckham accepts. “Seeing Erik come in is a breath of fresh air. He has had some tough decisions to make but he has done it in the most elegant way and in a way where he has got the fans on his side.

“Off the field, as a fan and ex-player, I just want it resolved. There has to be a decision (regarding the ownership). Whoever is running your club, you want them to be passionate, be involved, make the right decisions, bring in the right players and invest in the club. Because the club does need investment, whether it’s the training facility, stadium, on the field… these kinds of big things need to be made and changes do need to happen, especially when you see the likes of Man City and what they’re doing.

“It’s not just about what they’re winning. You can see that Man City are building for the future, not just from season to season. They’ve got stability with Pep (Guardiola, their manager since 2016, whose contract runs to 2025), who I am in awe of.

“We (United) were the top of the tree, we were winning everything, the ones who were successful, the ones where the players wanted to come. Luckily, we still have that Manchester United pull that existed when I went there. We want that back and the sooner a decision can be made, the better.”

Is it time for the Glazers to leave?

“I think so,” Beckham replies with no sense of hesitation. “I think it’s purely because the fans want it. Once you lose the fans, especially at a club like Manchester United, it’s hard to get them back. Obviously, they (the Glazers) have achieved a lot, and financially, the fact we’re even talking about the numbers of what Manchester United will sell for shows the success they’ve had. But there needs to be change. We’ve all seen that, we all know that.”

The main bidders for United are groups led by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar and British businessman Sir Jim Ratcliffe. You wonder if Beckham might like to feature, too, in some form.

“I have a lot going on here at the moment and my focus has purely been on Miami and everything that goes on in my business,” he counters. “But I haven’t been approached and I suppose any involvement with Manchester United would mean the world to me, going forward. But who knows? We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks or months. Hopefully, a decision gets made and if I’m involved in any way… if not, I’ll be a United fan and just do what all the other fans are doing — turn up and watch our team.”

On the subject of Qatar, we address Beckham’s role as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup there.

Paid millions to endorse the event — by a nation that bans same-sex relations, has a poor human rights record and faced allegations of mistreating migrant workers — Beckham drew criticism. His status as a gay icon produced a particularly fierce backlash from sections of the LGBTQI+ community.

“Anything I go into, I do every kind of check to make sure it is the right thing for me, is the right thing for my business and is the right thing morally,” says Beckham, whose links to the Gulf state extend to a spell playing for Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain before hanging up his boots 10 years ago.

“I was an ambassador of the World Cup in Qatar because I love the game. I also know and have been — not in business — part of Qatar since I signed for PSG. They asked me if I would be involved in the World Cup. I wanted to be involved in the World Cup because I’ve always said this game can change lives, can change people’s perceptions, and when you bring a World Cup into any country, it shines a huge spotlight on issues.

“I saw that as an opportunity. Firstly, to be involved in another World Cup. Secondly, Qatar is a relatively young country, it’s on a journey and there’s change. What comes with hosting a World Cup brings change. The Qataris said from day one, ‘Everybody is welcome’. I came away after the final thinking, ‘This is possibly one of the safest World Cups I’ve been to’. I spoke to people from the LGBTQ community. I was comfortable with the decision I made to get involved because I always feel that to make change you have to communicate, you have to engage.”

But what about the many people who feel Qatar wasn’t an altogether accepting host nation, with fans having rainbow flags confiscated as one example?

Beckham says: “There was a huge amount of work done in Qatar to make sure people felt comfortable and were welcomed at this World Cup. One of my friends went with his wife and kids aged 13 and 15. There was a mess-up with their tickets and the kids wanted to see the game. The parents let them go on their own, knowing they would be safe. That doesn’t happen at every World Cup.

“But going back to the issues, I know there’s a lot of work — a lot of good work — being done to make change and engagement is the only way of making change.”

Beckham’s detractors argue his lack of public communication both at the tournament and about the position he accepted did irreparable damage to his standing among certain communities.

“I’d like to feel that the trust of anyone who has respected me over the years — the amount of years they’ve either looked up to me, thought I’m a nice person or whatever — outweighs anything they feel I have done wrong or made a mistake with,” he says.

“I was comfortable with not speaking out there because, firstly, I felt that once the tournament started, the football, the atmosphere, would speak for itself. I also didn’t want to come out and be the person who is fuelling the fire. I felt, ‘I’m going to talk at the right time’. People know my stance on different issues around the world and the people closest to me know that. So I don’t need to fuel any person that wants to come out and criticise me because I felt the right thing to do is stay quiet and answer anything I need to answer when I’m ready.”

An area certainly experiencing change is women’s football.

This interview took place on the opening day of the Women’s World Cup and we were in a country which has won that competition more than any other. The youngest of Beckham’s four children, 12-year-old Harper, is a fan and that has helped heighten her father’s interest.

“I’ve always talked — and me, Jorge and Jose have always talked — about having a women’s team within the club (at Inter Miami),” Beckham reveals. “It’s something we’ve spoken about from day one, actually. To bring a women’s team into our club would be something we are definitely going to do. Having a daughter of my own, I want her to be inspired by something every single day.”

You imagine Harper already gets that from her mum, a famous singer and fashion designer, and there may be more attention on the family soon if a rumoured Spice Girls reunion materialises.

Which allows us to bring this chat to a close with the burning question: has Victoria been sharpening her vocal cords in the shower as she prepares for the group’s apparent 30th-anniversary gig?

“Well, she does that every day, obviously,” Beckham confirms, a knowing smile scrawled across his face. “You know, she’s Posh Spice; of course she gets in the shower and has a singalong!”

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)