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Inter Miami CF's Lionel Messi named TIME's 2023 Athlete of the Year

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MIAMI — Soccer superstar and Inter Miami CF player Lionel Messi has been named TIME's Athlete of 2023.

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Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi prepares for a throw-in during the first half of an MLS soccer match against Los Angeles FC, Sunday, Sept. 3, 2023, in Los Angeles. Ryan Sun / AP

Messi was praised in the magazine's Tuesday piece, calling him the "greatest living soccer player, arguably the best to ever play the world's most popular game," and highlighted how the "Messi Effect" took American soccer by storm.

"At 36, two decades into his unparalleled career, Messi provided a singular stimulus to soccer in America," TIME's Sean Gregory wrote. "Attendance, ticket prices, merchandise sales, and viewership soared. His games took on the feel of a religious revival."

Messi received the honor in TIME's People of the Year list after a whirlwind of a year for the international sportsman.

He led Argentina to a FIFA World Cup victory in December 2022 by defeating France in a penalty shootout, which marked his last World Cup game. Following the win, he was awarded the Ballon d'Or (his seventh), making him the only player in World Cup history to receive the coveted prize twice.

Messi then pulled off one the biggest stunts in his career: heading to Major League Soccer and joining Inter Miami CF over the summer. Even before his decision to join Inter Miami was finalized, his impact on American soccer was taking effect. Just months before his debut on the U.S. pitch, Inter Miami saw a huge boost in social media followers, soaring ticket prices and eager fans from across the globe coming to Magic City just to see the man play.

Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin said Messi's arrival to U.S. soccer was the "biggest day in probably MLS history."

Messi signed a two-and-a-half year contract with Inter Miami, in a deal that would pay him between $50 million and $60 million a year — that's at least $1 million per game.  

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Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal on a free kick in the second half during the Leagues Cup 2023 Round of 16 match between Inter Miami CF and FC Dallas at Toyota Stadium on Aug. 6, 2023 in Frisco, Texas. Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images

When he first arrived in South Florida, some Inter Miami players were starstruck by Messi when he arrived for practice.

"You know, you watch him on TV, and you know I say the same thing, how did he do that, but you know, that's why he's the G.O.A.T., that's why he's considered the greatest of all time, because he does things that people just can't explain," Inter Miami CF defender Deandre Yedlin told CBS News Miami in July.

In August, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis presented Messi the Key to the City before an Inter Miami home match at DRV PNK Stadium.

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Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi holds his Ballon d'Or trophy before the team's club friendly soccer match against New York City FC, Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Lynne Sladky / AP

Later in October, Messi won his eighth Ballon d'Or, further securing his place as one of the greatest soccer players to have ever lived.

In his two months on the team, Messi took Inter Miami CF from being one of the worst in the standings table to the league title, which proved to everyone how powerful the "Messi Effect" truly is. According to published reports, Messi sold more sports jerseys within 24 hours of his announcement than any other player changing teams, edging out NFL legend Tom Brady and NBA superstar LeBron James. CBS Golazo Network analyst Nico Cantor said Messi fans around the world are sporting his Miami jersey.

Gregory also wrote that Messi is an "accelerant" for U.S. soccer.

"With the most revered and influential athlete on the planet playing in Miami for at least the next two years, still performing at the top of his game—he won another Ballon d'Or as the world's player of the year, his eighth, in late October—the U.S. is now a soccer nation," he wrote in TIME.

"A fútbol nation."

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