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With Miami move, Messi joins elite list of soccer greats who went west


Soccer legend Lionel Messi had many options for where to take his career after a stint at Paris Saint-Germain. So his decision to cross the pond and play in North America was surprising. But maybe it shouldn’t have been.

News broke this week that the Argentinian great will join Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami, with some details still to be worked out.

But he’s not the first global soccer superstar to make a late-career move to this side of the Atlantic — something he seemed to acknowledge when announcing his move to Miami and the MLS.

“After winning the World Cup and not being able to return to Barcelona, it was my turn to go to the league of the United States to live football in another way,” said Messi, who is also a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and four-time Champions League winner, among other accomplishments in the sport.

Here’s a few other players who have made the jump.

Pelé paves the way to New York

It was Pelé who paved the path for other superstars to come to North America nearly five decades ago.

Pelé runs onto field, ahead of a soccer match in East Rutherford, N.J., on Aug. 25 1977.
Pelé runs onto the pitch at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in August 1977. The football legend played in the North American Soccer League during his final three years of pro soccer. (The Associated Press)

The way the three-time World Cup winner saw it, he was also carving a path for the beautiful game itself.

“You can say now to the world that soccer has finally arrived in the United States,” Pelé said, in remarks reported by the New York Times the day he signed a contract with the New York Cosmos of the now-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL), back in June of 1975.

His North American career gave his fans on this side of the border the chance to see Pelé up close when he was playing games in Canada.

A July 1975 image shows Bill Davis meeting the soccer great Pelé.
Ontario’s then-premier Bill Davis, left, meets Pelé in July 1975 at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium ahead of a soccer match between the New York Cosmos and the Toronto Metros-Croatia. (CBC Archives)

Pelé, who died at age 82 last December, spent the last three years as a pro playing with the Cosmos.

Best breaks away from U.K.

At first, George Best denied reports that he was heading to Los Angeles.

“They have jumped the gun,” said Best, according to a Toronto Star news brief from Dec. 5, 1975, on reports about him signing a deal. “I still have other offers to consider and it might take a couple of months.”

Soccer star George Best is seen on a New York field during a 1978 soccer match.
George Best of the L.A. Aztecs plays in a match against the New York Cosmos in 1978. The Belfast-born soccer superstar also played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers during his time in the North American Soccer League. (Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

But the Belfast-born soccer great — a Ballon d’Or winner and former Manchester United forward — would indeed be taking the field for the L.A. Aztecs the following spring.

Best, who died at age 59 in 2005, would play for several NASL teams.

Beckenbauer’s Cosmos run

Franz Beckenbauer followed in Pelé’s footsteps by joining the New York Cosmos for four seasons beginning in 1977.

Franz Beckenbauer battles for a soccer ball during a soccer game in 1983.
Franz Beckenbauer, left, battles for the ball during a match in May 1983. (The Associated Press)

The Cosmos won the league championship three times with Beckenbauer on their roster. He returned to Germany for two seasons before rejoining the Cosmos for his final season as a player in 1983.

Beckenbauer made his name internationally playing for West Germany and continentally in Europe playing for Bayern Munich.

But his impact in America was such that Beckenbauer was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in 1998.

L.A. beckons Beckham

It was big enough news for The National to take note that British soccer legend David Beckham was signing a North American soccer deal back in January 2007.

Soccer great David Beckham practices on a Toronto field in July 2008.
Soccer great David Beckham is seen practising at Toronto’s BMO Field in July 2008. (CBC Archives)

“He will, soccer fans hope, bring new life to the North American game,” The National‘s Adrienne Arsenault reported, the day Beckham’s deal with the L.A. Galaxy was announced.

Beckham, then 31, said he was heading to America not for the money, but for the chance “to hopefully build a club and a team that has got a lot of potential.”

The English midfielder would win two titles with the Galaxy in the years to come. A statue of Beckham now stands outside the stadium where the L.A. club plays.

And when Messi finally makes his Miami debut, likely sometime in July according to the Associated Press, he’ll have another global soccer superstar cheering him on, as Beckham is one of Inter Miami’s co-owners.


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