FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi is evidently going back to China, after Inter Miami took advantage of not making the Major League Soccer playoffs by signing a deal to play two exhibitions there next month.
The team said it would play a pair of friendlies against Chinese Super League teams, first in Qingdao, China against Qingdao Hainiu on Nov. 5 and then against Chengdu Rongcheng in Chengdu, China on Nov. 8. Those two stadiums can both hold between 50,000 and 60,000 fans.
Those dates coincide with the first round of the MLS playoffs. Inter Miami was eliminated from playoff contention earlier this month.
Inter Miami’s announcement of the deal did not specifically mention Messi or any other player, though it would be surprising if Chinese officials agreed to the games without some sort of guarantee that the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and the team’s other best-known standouts — Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba among them — would be making the trip if physically able.
“This will be a great opportunity to continue building on our 2023 campaign, in which we achieved our first-ever trophy,” Inter Miami sporting director and chief soccer officer Chris Henderson said in a release distributed by the team. “We will take this as an opportunity to begin our preparations for 2024, as we look to build on last season and find more success moving forward.”
If Messi — who led Argentina to the World Cup title last year — plays, it would be at least the eighth time he has traveled to China for exhibitions for club or country since 2005. Ticket for all previous Messi appearances have sold at a wild pace in China, a nation that has a massive soccer following even without much in the way of global success by the men’s national team. China’s women made the World Cup final in 1999, falling to the U.S. in a penalty-kick shootout to decide the title at the Rose Bowl in California.
Messi has played in China as recently as this past June, shortly after he stunned much of the soccer world by announcing that he was signing a 2 1/2-year contract worth around $150 million to come to MLS and play for Inter Miami. He scored barely one minute into a match for Argentina against Australia in Beijing on June 15, and later was surprised by fan — one wearing a Messi jersey — somehow getting onto the field to ask for a hug.
Messi also won Olympic gold in China, helping Argentina win the title at the Beijing Games in 2008. He and Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham have enormous followings in Asia, along with several endorsement deals in the region.
This is the first international tour for Inter Miami, which is about to end its fourth MLS season. The team won the Leagues Cup this season, doing so shortly after Messi began playing for Inter Miami in July.
The team didn’t reveal television or ticket information. The lowest-priced seats for Messi’s appearance at Beijing in June were listed at $80 and the highest-priced were around $670 at face value; if the price points for that match are similar to what’s set on this tour, the two matches could generate well over $20 million in ticket revenue alone.
That suggests this trip could be another major financial win for Inter Miami. MLS officials said Messi’s jersey has been the league’s top seller in 2023 — even though it wasn’t on sale until July — and the team has told its season ticket holders that it plans to increase prices dramatically for the 2024 season.
“We’re very excited to continue to expand our club’s global reach, bringing our team to play in front of incredible fans across the globe,” Inter Miami chief business officer Xavier Asensi said in remarks distributed by the club. “This is a special opportunity to share the passion as we reach new audiences and put ourselves on display in new places, and we’re looking forward to beginning this adventure.”
Inter Miami finishes its MLS season this week with matches against Charlotte on Wednesday and Saturday. Messi is currently with Argentina’s national team for World Cup qualifying and — given that nothing is at stake — it would seem unlikely that he’ll appear in either of the final two MLS matches of the season for his club.
The team hasn’t publicly revealed plans for any other international tours for 2024, but others are expected given Messi’s enormous global popularity.
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer