Lionel Messi is maybe the only soccer player in the world, at this point in time, who inspires absolute hysteria; the kind of shrieking, feverishly-grasping madness normally reserved for pop stars or religious zealots. Fans will push through barricades to get their hands on him or empty their wallets to watch him play in person.

Even Messi’s opponents have displayed their own adoration for the Argentine. In the weeks leading up to his side’s Leagues Cup match against Inter Miami, Cruz Azul’s Carlos Rotondi said that he’d “destroy the locker room” if any other player got Messi’s shirt after the match. Rotondi, an Argentine, got his start as a youth player at Newell’s Old Boys, as Messi did. Following Cruz Azul’s 2-1 loss to Miami, he got his wish, exchanging shirts with Messi in the tunnel.

It’s an odd level of idolatry, in a way. In few professions would it be considered permissible or even appropriate to display that level of fandom for a colleague. Cruz Azul, and Rotondi in particular, were torched by a select few in the Mexican press for the display, but who can blame him? It’s Lionel Messi.

The maneuvering and deal-making to get one of his kits will be lively, no matter where he goes in MLS

After Messi’s second match in the U.S., a Leagues Cup encounter against Atlanta United, Thiago Almada ended up with Messi’s shirt. It felt a bit like a fait accompli — Almada was Messi’s Argentina teammate at the World Cup in Qatar, and as Messi strolled over to him after the final whistle, not a single one of his teammates made an attempt at nabbing the kit. It felt almost prearranged because it likely was.

Atlanta United midfielder Santiago Sosa may not have gotten the memo. The Argentine tracked Messi down in the tunnel after the match and asked him for the shirt, unaware that Almada had already claimed it. When Messi gave him the bad news, Sosa handed him his jersey anyway, which Messi graciously accepted.

🇦🇷 Lionel Messi y Santiago

— Mati (@matiasm_02) July 26, 2023

Messi gives his shirts out liberally. Rarely, if ever, does he leave the pitch after any given match without swapping jerseys, frequently with some of soccer’s biggest names. His own personal collection, which he’s shared from time to time on his social media channels, features a laundry list of all-time greats but also a host of smaller names, mostly Argentines.

One thing Messi never does is actively seek out a shirt, though he’s made one exception to that rule.

“I don’t ask for shirts,” Messi told Argentine outlet TYC IN 2017. “If there is an Argentine, I will swap with an Argentine. If not and there is someone else that asks me, I will swap it with them. If not, I do not look and do not ask. I asked, once. I asked Zidane.”

The two shirts that Messi has handed out in MLS are likely the first of dozens and dozens of match-worn jerseys that will end up in the hands of his opponents. Miami’s kit man will likely have his hands full over the next two-and-a-half years as he cranks out Messi kits.

Most would assume that there will be a never-ending well of shirts for Miami to draw from, and in Messi’s case, that might be true. But generally speaking, the logistics of any given player giving someone the shirt off his back are a bit more complex.

Adidas, Major League Soccer’s official equipment sponsor, sends a shipment of match jerseys to each club at the onset of the year and most of any given club’s players have to adhere to a strict number of shirts they can give away over the course of a season — usually around 10. Most players get an allotment of four home kits, four away kits and a pair of “Parley” kits, made from ocean plastic and worn by all teams for one weekend of games, that they can give away or exchange with opponents. Ever seen an MLS player throw his jersey into the crowd? That, too comes out of their allotment.

Teams launder and reuse most match kits after each game, unless they’re damaged. If a shirt takes minor damage — say it has a tiny tear or hole in it — it will often get laundered and reused as a “blood kit,” equipment managers from various MLS teams say. Bench players who see very little action might spend an entire year wearing the same two or three shirts.

What happens if a player goes beyond those 10 allotted “giveaway” kits? In many cases, they get charged. That fee can vary from team to team — an employee at one club put the figure at $90, about $60 less than an MLS fan would pay for the same jersey. Other clubs, like the LA Galaxy, for example, don’t adhere to the limits and won’t charge a player if they give too many shirts away. On the other end of the spectrum, other clubs can be particularly stingy about giveaways, setting the number well below 10.

Raul Vargas has been the equipment manager for the Galaxy since the club’s inaugural season in 1996. In that span, he’s handled kits for a laundry list of MLS luminaries: David Beckham. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Steven Gerrard, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane.

“We try to keep the number low with all of our players,” Vargas says. “But when you have Beckham, or Robbie Keane or Donovan, every other player wants the shirt. And then we’ve had other players that see those players giving their shirts away all the time and they want to do the same. We are also the Galaxy — we are a big club, so everyone is going to want the shirt.”

Vargas said Beckham was far and away the Galaxy’s biggest draw in terms of requests. The club would often make a rack of Beckham’s shirts in both long-sleeved and short-sleeved varieties (Becks famously preferred the former throughout his whole career) and give nearly every one away every match.

Beckham never got charged for those and Lionel Messi almost certainly won’t get charged either. Messi has long been sponsored by Adidas, and other huge stars in MLS — Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and the like — frequently gave away a handful of kits per match, say their equipment managers.

“For us it’s Lucho (Acosta), for example,” says Teddy Kerr, who serves as FC Cincinnati’s kit man. “He’s given away more than his allotment already. Lucho may give a jersey out on the pitch and then afterwards he’ll come back to me and say ‘Hey, this other player, we said we were going to trade jerseys, can you take this over.’ So I’ll text the other kit man or walk over to the locker room with the shirt and we’ll figure it out.”

Ironically, that’s the way the bulk of jersey exchanges work, in the end — jerseys are sometimes shuttled between home and visiting locker rooms after the match, or handed out to fans or VIPs outside the changing room.

For his part, Acosta has already laid claim to Messi’s shirt. Cincinnati will play Miami twice this season, including a matchup in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals in late August. The Argentine was present at the World Cup final and made his way onto the field afterward, snapping a photo with Messi.

Lucho Acosta, gran amigo de Leandro Paredes, estuvo presente en la celebración de Argentina en su conquista del Mundial de #Qatar2022. El capitán y jugador argentino de FC Cincinnati, recordemos, llegó a sonar como rumor de fichaje para el PSG en su época de DC United. #ARG 🏆

— Mario Reinoso (@MarioReinoso17) December 19, 2022

“Of course I’ll get the shirt,” Acosta said this week. “It’s obvious.”

Those who took part in Argentina’s 4-0 rout of the U.S. men’s national team at the 2016 Copa America will tell you that Messi didn’t give anybody his shirt that day. On the way off the field, a national team staffer remembers, Messi’s match-worn shirt was taken by one of the Argentine’s entourage, who handed him a dry, unworn shirt to give away. No U.S. player ended up with it — even Christian Pulisic, who by pure happenstance ended up alongside Messi in doping control after the match.

Messi, of course, frequently has spare kits made. After Barcelona’s game against Real Madrid at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium in 2017, Messi emerged from the locker room with a backpack containing four shirts — all earmarked for famous friends and luminaries who’d attended the match. On the way from the locker room to the VIP area, a staffer who helped put together that match remembers, Messi was mobbed by a group of fans, who nearly ran one young girl over. Messi, the staffer remembers, pulled the girl from the fray and then opened up his backpack, giving her a jersey earmarked for Colombian megastar Shakira, who was waiting not far away.

Messi had a stack of unworn jerseys ready last Friday, too, to give away after his debut. Saint West, the seven-year-old son of businessperson and reality star Kim Kardashian, who was in attendance, ended up taking a selfie with Messi after the match. Moments later, the Argentine gifted him with an autographed, personalized Messi shirt.

Messi’s predecessors in the United States have all had their own rhyme or reason in terms of giving out their shirt. Toward the end of Pelé’s first-ever game with the New York Cosmos in 1975, spectators at the game started noticing something interesting. The Dallas Tornado, the Cosmos’ opponents that day, had been double or triple-teaming the Brazilian legend all game. But in the waning moments, no less than five players surrounded the man who at the time was soccer’s greatest-ever player.

It had nothing to do with neutralizing Pelé defensively. They just wanted his shirt. The scene would repeat itself throughout Pelé’s entire stay in the United States.

During his time with the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League, Pelé — maybe the only player who truly approaches Messi’s level of fame — would have a handful of kits made prior to each match. Five, sometimes six shirts, remembers Charlie Martinelli, the equipment manager for the Cosmos during their halcyon years in the mid-to-late 70s.

Johan Cruyff, arguably the game’s greatest-ever midfielder, had his own instructions for his equipment manager when he played for the NASL’s Washington Diplomats. Cruyff would wear two shirts during the game, changing his top at halftime. Both of those were frequently given to opponents. He’d have a third shirt made, as well, which he would typically give to a teammate who put in a deserving shift.

Most of Pelé and Cruyff’s game-worn American kits have filtered out into the market over the years. None of the players who surrounded Pelé during that debut match ended up with the kit, as the Brazilian was mobbed just after the whistle. On his way back to the changing room, though, Tommy Gore — a journeyman English midfielder who spent 1975 on loan with the Tornado from Wigan Athletic — snatched it up. Gore kept it for decades and sold it at auction after Pelé’s death earlier this year for a tidy sum: $180,000.

Pelé’s final professional Cosmos kit? The one he wore in the 1977 Soccer Bowl? That’s still in Martinelli’s own personal collection, hanging in a closet in his basement. He says he’s waiting for the right offer.

Commentator and former NASL staple Ray Hudson grimaces when he remembers what happened to his own Pelé match worn shirt, which was given to him by the Brazilian after a match in 1977: he lent it to a friend who owned a restaurant, so that he could display it there along with a host of other memorabilia. The restaurant closed some time later, and Hudson never saw the kit again.

Cruyff’s American game-worn shirts have sold for a bit less than Pelé’s — typically between $10,000-$20,000. Many of his former teammates have held on to their copies, as has John Feinstein, the Washington Post writer who covered the Diplomats in the 80s. Occasionally, Feinstein remembers, Cruyff would share a shirt with someone who wasn’t on the team at all. Feinstein received his during his final interview with Cruyff before the Dips folded in 1980, when Cruyff offered it up as a sign of appreciation for his work.

No MLS player is likely thinking of snagging Messi’s kit as an investment, but some of the player’s more notable kits have fetched a king’s ransom. Messi’s Barcelona jersey from a 2017 edition of El Clásico — the one Messi iconically held aloft after scoring the match-winner — sold for $450,000, the highest sum ever paid for a jersey used in a club match.

Final Sale Price: $450,000

An all-time record for any Lionel Messi game-used jersey.

— Goldin (@GoldinCo) May 1, 2022

It was nearly twice what Pelé’s shirt from the 1970 World Cup final fetched, though it didn’t even approach the $8.93 million paid for Diego Maradona’s game-worn from the infamous “Hand of God” match against England at the 1986 World Cup.

Some of Messi’s recent kits have also sold at a premium. The first Paris Saint-Germain jersey he wore in a game after winning World Cup 2022 recently sold for $48,000. Kylian Mbappe’s PSG shirt from that same match sold for about a quarter of that, with Neymar’s going for even less. If Messi retires in MLS, it feels entirely possible that his very final match shirt — and maybe his first, as well — could sell for far more than anything he ever slipped into in Paris.

(Top photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)