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Lionel Messi and Inter Miami are in Saudi Arabia to continue their around-the-world preseason tour

Inter Miami played six preseason matches last season. Most were behind closed doors with few people watching, all took place in Florida and the biggest news probably came when some fans prematurely set off fireworks and got ejected from the exhibition-season opener.

It’s wildly different this season.

Such is life in Lionel Messi’s world.

The soccer icon and Inter Miami have a two-game tour of Saudi Arabia this week, the first match on Monday against Al-Hilal and the second match coming Thursday against Al Nassr – one where Messi may share the pitch again with longtime rival and fellow great Cristiano Ronaldo, assuming the Portugal star has recovered enough from a calf injury to play.

The club already has played two exhibitions this year – one in El Salvador, one at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl – and has matches in Hong Kong and Japan still to come after the Saudi swing is complete. It’s basically an around-the-world, big-crowd, big-money, bright-spotlight batch of preseason games for Inter Miami, which instantly became a global brand when Messi announced last summer that he was joining the Major League Soccer club.

“It’s incredible,” said DeAndre Yedlin, the Inter Miami defender who was captain until Messi arrived. “Obviously, it’s not just one guy, but I think most of the focus is on Leo. So, it shows just kind of the influence that he’s had on the game and has had on the game. People want to know what he’s doing. People want to know anything that he’s involved with, what’s going on. It’s great for the league. It’s great for us.”

Inter Miami is in Saudi Arabia because of Messi, plain and simple. There is no bigger name in the game than the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner and captain of reigning World Cup champion Argentina, and Messi – who had an offer to play in Saudi Arabia, which he turned down to join MLS and come to Inter Miami – is a Saudi ambassador to help promote tourism.

He was even suspended once by one of his former clubs, Paris Saint-Germain. for making an unauthorized trip to the country. But Inter Miami not only understands the value of having Messi, it welcomed this massive preseason stretch in advance of an MLS season that starts Feb. 21.

“Having the possibility of seeing Messi up close in this circumstance is really very valuable,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said in Spanish last week before the team departed on its 13 1/2-hour charter flight to Riyadh. “You have to see how many times these people are going to have this possibility.”

The financial benefit of Inter Miami and Messi playing in Saudi Arabia hasn’t been revealed. It’s reasonable to think it’s a big number, enough to help the MLS club offset at least some of Messi’s salary – he’s on a 2 1/2-year contract that will pay him around $150 million – and what the team spent to land the likes of Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez to play with him.

The Saudis have made clear that they’ll spend big for what they want; some have used the term “sportswashing ” when it comes to how the kingdom has spent billions bankrolling LIV Golf and attracting Formula One, boxing, horse racing, even BMX racing and professional wrestling. Much of this comes with great criticism. Messi’s fame hasn’t taken a hit from his association with the Saudis. Such is his power.

“What I love about Saudi,” Messi says in a marketing campaign for the country, “is that I always discover what I never expected.”

The trip itself speaks to how different everything for Inter Miami has become. The club faced Florida International University with no fans allowed in one of its preseason matches last season; this season, it’s facing Ronaldo with the soccer world watching for a result that won’t even count. The team had less than 1 million followers on Instagram; it has 16 million now, many of them no doubt driven there by the half-a-billion followers Messi has on that site.

An around-the-world trip for a whole new world makes sense.

“It’s a bit different and I think the upside to that is we get to experience some different teams, different kind of competition,” Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender said Sunday. “We’re looking at it as a challenge in a way to kind of develop as a team, exposing ourselves to different teams, different leagues. So, I think for us it’s still new, but I think everybody has a good feeling around it.”

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