The aura surrounding Lionel Messi‘s MLS arrival is such that even opposing players are awestruck in his presence. His move to Inter Miami offers them a once-in-a-lifetime chance to share the same field with a legend who has spent the better part of the past 20 years in Europe. However, the perks don’t end there for a select few rivals who have secured the ultimate keepsake.

For even in an era in which easy access to cameras and devices can serve to mark the moment, Messi’s match-worn Inter Miami jersey remains the memento of choice, one usually earned if not because of a prior connection then through a bit of ambition in the postmatch scrum. Messi himself is aware of the power of the transaction, with his home museum in Barcelona already decked out from floor to ceiling as far back as six years ago.

“I was kind of surprised he still had his shirt on, to be honest with you,” said LAFC‘s John McCarthy, a recipient of Messi’s jersey after Inter Miami’s 3-1 win in a match between the teams on Sept. 3.

In the nine postgame sessions in which he has swapped his Inter Miami jersey since arriving three months ago, Messi has picked eight Argentineans among the 12 recipients. McCarthy is one of two Americans on the list, along with Nashville’s Dax McCarty. Orlando City’s Rafael Santos (Brazil) and Charlotte FC‘s Harrison Afful (Ghana) round out the list.

The jersey is but a little piece of Messi yet one not available to anyone else, left behind for exclusive opponents and admirers to take back home forever. ESPN spoke with some of the recipients who described what it is like to possess sports’ newest holy grail.

¿Camiseta, por favor?

McCarthy, the only goalkeeper to swap shirts with Messi since his arrival, wasn’t even able to offer his own jersey in return — he had earlier given it to his Inter Miami counterpart Drake Callender. What probably impressed Messi, the former Barcelona star, was McCarthy’s save on his first-half shot.

After the match, McCarthy made use of what he described as his limited Spanish skills to make the jersey request as Messi drifted toward the locker room.

“All I really said was: ‘Ah, Messi. ¿Camiseta, por favor?‘ I felt bad because he kind of looked at me like, ‘Where’s yours?’ in a sense,” said McCarthy. “I guess I’m lucky we don’t have many Argentinians on the team.”

Smells like a legend

Thiago Almada, who alongside Messi was a member of Argentina‘s 2022 World Cup champion squad, had already secured his national teammate’s jersey by the time Inter Miami thrashed Atlanta United 4-0 in this summer’s Leagues Cup. Almada had approached Messi in the second half as he was being subbed and made the arrangement.

“When I grabbed it, it smelled like perfume,” Almada said in Spanish. “On the national team, I never wanted to ask him for his jersey or bother him, so I’m very happy to have his shirt.”

Plan B in effect

Sometime after that same Leagues Cup match between Miami and Atlanta, a clip of midfielder Santiago Sosa — Almada’s United teammate — fruitlessly asking an already shirtless Messi to swap made the rounds, but he had already exchanged with Almada. The context of what ultimately became a viral clip capturing the moment was clear: The disappointment of losing out on a jersey is just as powerful as the joy of receiving one.

Undaunted, Sosa figured out an alternate way to get his own.

“[Players] usually wear two jerseys during a game, one in the first half and another in the second,” Sosa said. “So I gave him mine, and he sent me one he had used [in the first half].”

The delivery was made to Atlanta’s locker room, where a security guard who had been dispatched to complete the exchange quietly stood in front of Sosa and opened a nondescript bag with the pink jersey inside. Sosa confirmed the authenticity shortly, deducing it was the real deal because “it was sweaty.”

Keep it out of the laundry and the public

Almada and Sosa sent their keepsakes back to Argentina for storage at their respective families’ homes. Each gave a set of specific instructions: Don’t wash the jersey, ever, and keep it safe from prying eyes. However, in the age of social media, it’s nearly impossible to keep something like this from becoming news.

With his son’s blessing, Sosa’s father threw a viewing party for the jersey where he displayed the relic to a precious few guests. After a backyard grilling session, visitors were escorted to Messi’s jersey and quickly snapped photos. Proximity by proxy to the man who is revered as more than a national hero in Argentina.

“A lot of people are happy for me, for having done the exchange,” said Philadelphia Union midfielder and Argentinean Julián Carranza, the recipient of Messi’s jersey after Inter Miami walloped his squad 4-0 in the Leagues Cup semifinal. “They asked me for photos of the jersey, and fortunately, I could send them.”

Generational heirloom

It makes sense to keep Messi’s jersey as safely stowed as possible. While the emotional value for each jersey is incalculable, a few have nevertheless found their way onto the market, fetching hefty fees along the way. In January, a bidder paid €43,623 — about $46,500 — for a game-worn jersey from Messi’s time at Paris Saint-Germain. In 2022, the Barcelona shirt Messi wore during the 2017 El Clásico against LaLiga archrival Real Madrid sold for €450,000 euros, or nearly a half million dollars.

Messi’s Inter Miami jerseys from his current, early MLS era probably won’t experience similar fates. Instead, the lucky few jersey owners plan on keeping their prizes as heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation as a reminder of their brushes with greatness.

“Having faced him is a great memory that’s always going to stay with me,” Sosa said. “Having the shirt is something nice not just for me — but for my family as well. It’s a trophy, in a way.”

Eric Gomez

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