What motivates Messi? The answer will decide where the legendary Leo takes his game this summer

Lionel Messi accepted a second Laureus Sportsman of the Year Award earlier this week in Paris; Argentina’s World Cup champs won the team award.
Lionel Messi accepted a second Laureus Sportsman of the Year Award earlier this week in Paris; Argentina’s World Cup champs won the team award. / Aurelien Meunier/GettyImages

Where will Lionel play soccer next year? He’s not saying, but that hasn’t stopped everyone with a keyboard (or a microphone) from offering an opinion.

Despite a long courtship, Inter Miami remains an underdog to sign the legendary Argentine. But the Herons — presumably with massive assistance from Major League Soccer — is mentioned as a contender for Messi’s services, along with prestigious European suitors PSG and Barcelona and Al-Hilal, a power in the ambitious — and obscenely wealthy — Saudi Pro League. Manchester City, with petro dollars of its own to spend on players, gets an occasional mention.

Who knows where Leo will land (besides half the soccer journalists on the planet, evidently)?

Every dribble of information from anyone remotely related to Messi generates a frenzy of reports with “exclusive” insight into his decision. Barcelona is ready to dump any number of young stars to satisfy La Liga’s financial regulations and put Leo back in the Blaugrane and Al-Hilal will offer Messi a billion dollars a year to join longtime rival Christianity Ronaldo in The Kingdom. South Florida’s glamorous nightlife, large South American community, and tropical climate - not to mention lucrative endorsement and business opportunities and the possibility of becoming the face of soccer in America leading up to the World Cup and an ownership stake in Inter Miami or another MLS club, a La David Beckham, will more than make up the difference in dollars the other clubs might offer.

Where will Messi play? I think his choice will show us a lot about his character. He’s made so much money, earned so many awards, won so many championships in his career; what motivates him now?

If it’s money, the choice is a no-brainer. With even a fraction of the cash Al-Hilal is said to be offering, Messi could likely buy his own MLS team. But is the level of competition up to his standards? How will his family adjust to life in an Arabic culture? Can he satisfy his conscience that he isn’t helping “sportswash” The Kingdom’s questionable human rights record? Or will he relish a renewal of his individual competition with C7, with whom his career always will be linked? Maybe he will embrace the challenge of raising the Saudi Pro League’s quality and international profile? And, while he certainly doesn’t NEED more money, what good could he do with tens, hundreds of millions he DOESN’T need?

If Messi is motivated by nostalgia, a sense of homecoming and completion, then the Catalan capitol is a clear winner. He moved to Barcelona from Argentina as a 13-year-old, debuted with its senior team in 2004 at 17 years old. He won 34 trophies with Barça, including 10 La Liga crowns, seven Copa Del Rey titles and three UEFA Champions League titles. It’s a testament to just how serious Barcelona’s finances had become that he was allowed to leave in 2021; Lionel Messi is, and always will be, synonymous with Barcelona football. If the club can make it work, why wouldn’t he go back to Barcelona?

Maybe pride drives Messi, in which case he might relish an opportunity to quiet the French fans who’ve whistled, booed and chanted their dissatisfaction at his failure to bring the elusive UEFA Champions League trophy to Paris. At 35, his skills are in decline, but a diminished Messi still is a dynamic force on the pitch. He helped Argentina win its third World Cup trophy last year. After an abbreviated suspension for missing practice without permission —he traveled to (gasp!) Saudi Arabia to see to his travel ambassador duties — Messi and PSG seem back on speaking terms. While the French powerhouse seems ready to cut ties with Messi and fellow superstar Neymar to build around Killian Mbappe, it’s not unthinkable that Messi might stay for another shot at Champions League glory — and mud in the eyes of his French critics.

The greatest hope for Inter Miami fans is that Messi is motivated by family. He has a vacation home in the Miami area and, aside from the reasons mentioned earlier, the United States still is the land of opportunity. With his resources, he would be able to give his wife, children and extended family the best America has to offer. MLS almost certainly presents a higher level of competition than the Saudi league and the sheer size and geographic and climatic diversity gives the league unique challenges no other league can offer.

Where do I think Messi will play next year? My heart hopes he’ll come to Inter Miami — even if I do think his arrival would stunt the club’s development and undermine its identity — but my head believes he’ll stay in Europe and keep chasing meaningful trophies. Wild guess: Barcelona finds away to bring him back for a year or two, then move him into the front office.

He’ll still vacation in Miami.