SPORTS

Want to Play Messi’s Argentina? Prepare to Pay Up.


All told, there were around a dozen offers for officials at Argentina’s national soccer federation to contemplate. They came, largely, from the game’s commercially lucrative emerging markets: the United States, China, Australia, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates. The only outlier, really, was an unlikely bid from Bangladesh.

Each suitor wanted the same thing — the chance to host Lionel Messi and Argentina in one of two designated windows for friendly matches this summer — but all had their own motivation. Some were inspired by the sporting prestige of gracing the same field as the World Cup champions. For others, the potential benefits strayed into the political.

They were all, though, prepared to pay for the privilege. Each offer promised the A.F.A., Argentina’s soccer federation, not just a slice of ticket sales, television rights and commercial revenue from the games, but an eye-watering appearance fee, too.

Five months since it won the World Cup in Qatar, Argentina has become the most in-demand, and possibly the most expensive, opponent in international soccer. The going rate for a single game with the world champion has climbed so high that $5 million is now just the starting point, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions.

The identity of the winning bids for the two matches in June is not yet official. The A.F.A. is continuing to assess its options, and will only make a firm decision once Lionel Scaloni, the national team’s coach, indicates he is comfortable with their plans.

Sources inside a number of the national associations involved, though, have suggested that the most likely schedule is for Argentina to play its first game in China — possibly against Australia, pending Scaloni’s approval — and then travel to Indonesia for a game against a host team currently ranked 149th in the world.

Those matchups illustrate the extent to which the benefits of a meeting with the reigning world champion stretch far beyond the sporting. Such is Argentina’s cachet, in light of its victory in Qatar, that Australia’s soccer authorities have been encouraged to agree to host a game in China in the hope that it might strengthen political and economic ties between the countries, according to an official involved in the talks. The Indonesia game could be seen as a similarly pragmatic reward: Last month, Argentina stepped in as host of this year’s Under-20 World Championship after Indonesia was stripped of the tournament over protests against Israel’s involvement.

That schedule would, however, mean passing on an encounter to play in the United States, though only for the time being. In recent years, the A.F.A. has embarked on a plan to increase both its commercial revenue and its reach — traditionally overshadowed by its archrival, Brazil — as part of a strategic attempt to capitalize on its global appeal.

Recent success has played into that. After lifting the Copa América trophy in 2021, its first major international honor since 1995 and Messi’s maiden championship with his country, Argentina could claim more sponsors and partners than any other national team on the planet.

That expanded again after Qatar. The A.F.A. has signed deals with four more partners, largely in India and Bangladesh, in the months since the World Cup. There has been a downstream effect for the country’s domestic league, too: It has more sponsors for this season than it has had at any point in its history.

It is the United States, though, that is Argentina’s “priority for the next four years,” said Leandro Petersen, the A.F.A.’s chief commercial and marketing officer. To deepen that connection, the federation plans to build a $10 million training facility in North Bay Village, Fla., a tiny outcrop of land between Miami and Miami Beach, to act as a gathering spot for its national teams during international breaks.

The complex may be just the first of a number of facilities in the United States: The A.F.A. is also considering establishing a physical presence in several other cities as part of what Petersen called a “landing strategy.”

Argentina’s national team is scheduled to play on American soil in both 2024 and 2026 — first to defend its Copa América crown, and later its World Cup championship — but the A.F.A. would like to make the team’s visits an annual event. It is likely to arrange at least one game in North America in 2025 as part of its preparations for the World Cup, and may even seek to face Mexico — which now plays the bulk of its friendlies in America — and the United States that year.

Neither nation would, in all likelihood, turn down that chance. After all, Argentina is now the biggest show in town: not only the world champion but, thanks to its nerve-shredding, emotional journey through Qatar, the most compelling team on the planet. Sharing the field with Messi and Co. these days, it would seem, is almost priceless.

Tariq Panja contributed reporting.



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