Lionel Messi and play for Inter Miami. Messi will be one of the biggest international stars to make the move to the United States to continue his pro sports career, but he will not be the first.
Several stars across a few different sports have come to the U.S. following decorated careers overseas. Messi has already been preceded by players like David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimović, who spent time with the L.A. Galaxy.
Several baseball, basketball, and hockey players have also joined the pro ranks in America after putting up monster numbers in leagues across the world. Arvydas Sabonis and Hideki Matsui are just two players who were already established stars before joining the NBA and MLB, respectively.
Let's take a look back at some of the biggest international sports stars who brought their talents to the United States after establishing themselves overseas.
Few international sports signings in the United States compare to this one. Lionel Messi is a living legend, and he can still play at a high level. In the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Messi led Argentina to a championship and won the Golden Ball as the player of the tournament with seven goals. He also won the Golden Ball when Argentina was the runner up at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and is the only player to have won it twice.
In 17 seasons with FC Barcelona, Messi established himself as one of the greatest soccer players of all time with 474 goals and 191 assists in 519 matches. He also led Barcelona to 10 La Liga titles. These past two years, Messi has played for Paris Saint-Germain, and the club won back-to-back Ligue 1 championships with Messi tallying 22 goals in 58 matches.
Messi will be a huge draw for Inter Miami, and his presence will be a surge of interest to the MLS, but he is not the first international soccer star to make his way to the U.S.
Zlatan Ibrahimović was a well-traveled soccer star by the time he joined L.A. Galaxy in 2018. He had played for eight clubs across six different leagues, and Ibrahimović was a huge pull for the MLS.
From 2006 to 2011, Zlatan won five straight league titles. Three of them were with Inter Milan of Serie A, one was with FC Barcelona of La Liga, and he went back to Serie A and won another title with Inter Milan. From 2012 to 2016, he won four straight Ligue 1 championships with Paris Saint-Germain.
Zlatan made his debut with the Galaxy in 2018 and scored two goals in his first match after entering the game as a sub. He wound up scoring 22 goals in 27 matches that season. The next year, his final one with the Galaxy, Zlatan tallied 30 goals in 29 matches. Despite his personal success, the team never finished higher than eighth.
The first time a massive international soccer star chose to take his talents to the MLS was when Beckham chose to play for L.A. Galaxy in 2007. Starting back in 1994, Beckham had built a career on helping Manchester United rack up Premier League titles. The club won six of them in Beckham's nine years there.
Beckham then spent four seasons with Real Madrid, and the club won the La Liga championship in 2006-07, his final season before moving to the United States. Before his MLS career began, Beckham had 75 goals in 381 matches with Manchester United and Real Madrid.
In 2008, Beckham's first full season with the Galaxy, he registered five goals and eight assists in 25 matches, but the team finished 13th. Beckham would go on to play parts of six seasons with the Galaxy, and he finished his time there with 18 goals, 31 assists, and two titles.
Before he even came over to MLB, Ichiro had already built an impressive career with the then-Orix BlueWave of the Nippon Professional Baseball. In that time, Ichiro piled up 1,278 hits for a .353 batting average, 118 home runs, and 528 RBIs.
In November of 1998, Ichiro signed a three-year contract with the Seattle Mariners, but was not able to play for he Mariners until 2001, which would be the beginning beginning of a long and legendary MLB career. In his first MLB season, Ichiro won the AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, in addition to the AL batting title. He spent the first 11 full seasons of his career with the Mariners, and in that time, he was a 10-time All-Star and led the league in hits seven times.
Ichiro was traded to the New York Yankees midway through the 2012 season, and he signed with the Miami Marlins in 2015 before returning to the Mariners for parts of two seasons in 2018 and 2019. He retired two games into that year and won't be eligible for the Hall of Fame until 2025.
Matsui spent a decade with the Yomiuri Giants of the NPB before ever playing an MLB game. He was a star for Yomiuri, hitting .304 with 332 home runs and 889 RBI in 1,268 games.
In December of 2002, Matsui signed a three-year contract with the New York Yankees, and in the 2003 home opener, he hit a grand slam against the Minnesota Twins. That signaled the start of an excellent career in the Bronx.
Matsui was an All-Star in his first two seasons with the Yankees, and he was the 2009 World Series MVP when the team defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in six games. That series, Matsui hit .615 with three home runs and eight RBI.
That was his last season with the Yankees, and he played three more years at the MLB level before retiring with a .282 average, 175 homers, and 760 RBI.
Like Ichiro and Matsui, Ohtani also began his professional baseball career in NPB. Ohtani played five seasons in Japan, and he was in high demand when MLB teams came calling. Ultimately, Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Angels in December of 2017.
Ohtani immediately became a sensation in the United States, dominating on the mound and in the batter's box. As a rookie in 2018, Ohtani hit .285 with 22 homers and 61 RBI. He also produced a 3.31 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 51.2 innings. Unsurprisingly, he won Rookie of the Year at the end of the season.
Through his first 626 games, Ohtani has hit .268 with 143 home runs and 384 RBI. As a pitcher, Ohtani owns a record of 33-16 with a 3.02 ERA and 537 strikeouts. In 2021, Ohtani was named the AL MVP, and his name is heating up in trade rumors as the 2023 deadline approaches.
Sabonis was a European sensation, and he dominated in Spain from 1989 to 1995. In the 1992 Summer Olympics, Sabonis led the Lithuanian national team to a bronze medal, and he won a bronze medal with the team at the 1996 Summer Games.
In 1985, the Atlanta Hawks tried to draft Sabonis with the No. 77 overall pick, but it was voided because he was under 21 at the time of the selection. One year later, the Portland Trail Blazers chose Sabonis with the No. 24 overall pick. That one stuck. He signed with the Blazers after the 1994-95 season and made his way over to the U.S.
In 1995-96, Sabonis earned All-Rookie honors with 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. In his 470 game NBA career, Sadonis averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game.
Sabonis was already 30 and riddled with injuries when he joined Portland, and that led many to wonder what he could have done if he had been able to get to America sooner in his career.
A member of the Russian Five, Fetisov was one of the first players who left the Soviet Union to play in the NHL. He was originally met with a lot of resentment and resistance from the Soviet government, but they eventually agreed to let Fetisov and other players go to America if they competed for the Soviet Union at international events.
Before his NHL career began, Fetisov was a key member of the juggernaut Soviet Union team that won gold medals at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Olympic Games. While playing for the Soviet national team, Fetisov tallied 51 goals and 95 assists in 143 games as a defenseman. Fetisov was also a juggernaut for Russian powerhouse CSKA Moscow.
When Fetisov finally suited up for his first NHL game with the New Jersey Devils, he was 31-years-old, but he had plenty of gas left in his tank. He played five full seasons with the Devils before being traded to the Red Wings, where he won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1997 and 1998.
Salming's arrival in North America, and his subsequent career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, was important because of the impact he had on how teams saw European players. Prior to Salming's career, the perception was that European players were too soft for the NHL.
Salming played 17 seasons in the NHL, and 16 of them were with the Maple Leafs. In that time, he put up massive numbers from the blue line. Salming left Toronto with 148 goals and 620 assists in 1,099 games. His 787 career points are still 18th all-time among defensemen.
Now, the NHL is filled with players from all over Europe, and many of them have Salming to thank. Without him, the NHL may have waited even longer to start bringing over European players.