Yassine Cheuko is everywhere these days. Cheuko, who serves as Lionel Messi’s personal bodyguard, is the Argentine’s shadow at Inter Miami, present alongside him wherever he goes. Even when Messi is on the field, Cheuko is there, trotting up and down the sideline, ever-vigilant. His brawny, powerful look and the mere fact that he protects the greatest player on earth have made him a cult sensation of sorts.
He is also an enigma. Fans in stadiums call his name, while media outlets across the globe have attempted to unlock the mystery of Messi’s rugged, muscle-bound sentinel, to no avail. Earlier this month, an adult entertainment website even offered him $25,000 for a nude photoshoot. As of this writing, Cheuko hasn’t taken them up on the offer.
Cheuko seems comfortable in the spotlight at work, but he’s avoided attention entirely away from it. He has never given an interview, and little to nothing is known about him. His age, his origin story, all of it remains private. He essentially does not exist, on the internet at least, before his time working with Messi.
Approach him, and you’ll earn little more than a polite smile in return. There are no selfies, no profiles to read, no content outside of the carefully-curated training montages he posts on his Instagram. There is only the mythology of Messi’s “ex-Navy-SEAL, MMA fighter bodyguard, hand-picked by Inter Miami owner David Beckham himself,” an elaborate, often-fictional backstory which seems to grow by the day.
But if you really want to meet Yassine Cheuko, there is one sure-fire way to do it. You just have to run on the field during an Inter Miami game. Make a bee-line towards Messi, as a handful of bravely stupid fans have over the past two months, and you’ll end up in his arms.
There was the trio of fans who tried to get near Messi during his Inter Miami debut, but couldn’t quite sniff him. Then there was the pitch invader in Nashville, Tennessee who managed to get a few milliseconds with the greatest player on earth before being dragged off by Cheuko and a host of security guards. And most notably, there was the overzealous 14-year-old in Los Angeles who made it all the way to Messi before being placed in a chokehold by Cheuko, who proceeded to hand him off to stadium security.
Messi has long been the target of this sort of adulation and he always looked pretty unfazed. Maybe he’s just used to it, or maybe he feels entirely comfortable given the ever-presence of Cheuko, a man who regularly posts videos of himself on Instagram pulverizing punching bags and other humans into mincemeat.
In the end, it’s a bizarre juxtaposition: maybe the world’s most famous human being, a person whose own backstory has been so thoroughly unpacked and written about that he sometimes feels like family, shadowed at all times by someone so anonymous.
Our quest to unlock the mystery of Yassine Cheuko starts in Fort Lauderdale, at DRV PNK Stadium. We’re here in mid-August for Lionel Messi’s first press conference as a member of Inter Miami. Two hours or so before the event is scheduled to begin, dozens of reporters and camera people mill about in the parking lot, all waiting for Messi to arrive. A handful of Messi fans are camped out as well, singing and dancing in the stadium’s parking lot, flares aloft. It’s a bizarre sight, especially in MLS, where matchday press boxes are often largely empty and the mainstream media so frequently ignores the league completely.
We had already tried getting access to Cheuko through official channels, but the club turned our request down, as they’ve done with hundreds of other outlets who’ve wanted to speak with him. We realized that a bit of small-talk may be our best shot at getting anything out of him.
Cheuko is an imposing figure but he also looks eminently approachable. In some ways, you could liken him to another famous (albeit fictional) bodyguard — Dalton, Patrick Swayze’s legendary character in the ‘80s classic Roadhouse. Swayze’s character, a bouncer tasked with calming down a rowdy country bar, largely operates by one code: “Be nice. Always be nice.” Cheuko seems to have a bit of the same energy, calmly brushing away desperate hands as they reach for Messi, offering a smile or at worst a steely gaze.
Just last weekend, Cheuko deftly shielded the Argentine from a young pitch invader before quickly shielding the invader himself from other security. Then he calmly walked the youngster over to Messi himself to give him a special moment.
Messi’s bodyguard is undefeated:
▪️ Makes the play on the pitch invader
▪️ Then gives him a memory for life
— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 8, 2023
When we spot Cheuko pulling into the stadium parking lot in a nondescript, small SUV, we make our move. As he hops out of the car to move a cone out of the way, we strike up a brief conversation. When our attempts to communicate in English fail, we switch to Spanish. Surely the bodyguard of the most famous Spanish-speaker in the world has picked up a bit of it.
“Todo el mundo te quiere conocer, Yassine.”
The entire world, we tell him, wants to get to know him. Cheuko demures. “No, no,” he says with a laugh. He tells us he came here from Paris, with Messi, where he’d served as the Argentine’s bodyguard during Leo’s stay at PSG. And with that, he hops back into his car and drives away.
Even that brief interaction calls into question at least one widely-reported fact: that he was personally recruited and hired by David Beckham. That has always seemed far-fetched. Beckham has his own private security, of course, and he did during his time as a player with the LA Galaxy, when he relied on the services of a massive Puerto Rican bodybuilder named Evelio Morales.
“The guy talked my ear off for an hour once about his raw diet,” said one former Galaxy staffer. “He was a weird dude.”
Morales, who still appears to work in private security, became a bit of a sensation as well, inspiring at least one wildly vivid piece of fan fiction.
But Cheuko was not Beckham’s hand-picked choice to protect Miami’s prized catch. Cheuko has known Messi for years and worked security at PSG for five years, predating Messi’s arrival at that club from Barcelona, say those close to PSG.
Beckham’s involvement in Cheuko’s presence is far from the most outlandish thing that’s been reported about Lionel Messi’s bodyguard, though.
We have another chance encounter with Cheuko after Miami’s Leagues Cup final victory over Nashville SC.
Hours after the final whistle, after the celebrations have died down, the stage has been wheeled away and the confetti cleaned off the field, Miami leaves the stadium and boards a bus bound for the airport. Messi comes out first, with Cheuko by his side. It’s nearly 1 a.m. and when the Argentine spots our camera, he looks down at his phone and pops his earbuds in. But we’re not interested in speaking with Messi, not at the moment, at least.
“Yassine,” we say, motioning him over. This time, we get what most everybody else does: a nod and a smile. Cheuko disappears onto the bus and we pack up and leave.
Maybe the most noteworthy tidbit that’s been parroted about Cheuko is that he is a former United States Navy SEAL, one who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a convenient backstory, and he sort of looks the part. In the U.S., SEALs are perceived as some of the most capable humans on earth, real-life MacGyvers who can survive in the harshest conditions and the most challenging environments. Only the most elite members of the Navy — about 2,500, 1% of all personnel — are Seals.
They operate largely in darkness, clandestine by nature, forbidden at times from even discussing their work or identifying themselves as SEALs to begin with.
That exclusivity and anonymity has spurred more than a few people to make false claims about being former SEALs, a subset of military service honor appropriation commonly referred to in the U.S. as “stolen valor.”
Don Shipley, a former SEAL himself, has made a career out of debunking these claims. He runs a popular YouTube channel and also operates an adult fantasy camp of sorts, letting adult civilians cosplay their Navy SEAL fantasies on his farm in Maryland.
We send Shipley a text message and he calls us back almost immediately.
“I’m out here duck hunting,” he says in a hushed tone. “But this guy — I’ve been tracking this guy for weeks. He was never a Navy SEAL. I would look at the source of that information, though.”
Shipley prattles on a bit more but the conversation is cut short as he throws his phone down and fires a shotgun. His suggestion, though — “look at the source” — is a valid one. We’ve also done our own research, consulting active and former members of the military, searching military databases and even speaking with former SEALs, and Cheuko doesn’t turn up anywhere.
It’s important to note that this claim likely did not originate from Cheuko himself, it was more likely attached to him by overzealous media outlets in South America with a sometimes-tenuous grasp on the truth and an eagerness to sell papers.
The claims that Cheuko was an ex-Navy SEAL originated in Argentina, but it becomes practically impossible to figure out who initially reported it by poring through Internet search results. Not a single outlet who reports the information cites any particular source for it, while a few outlets cite each other. The UK’s Daily Mail seems to be the largest site to offer claims that Yassine Cheuko is a former Navy SEAL.
Since the claim trickled out in March, the story has sometimes evolved. Yassine, some said, was actually a member of the French special forces, not the SEALs. Even those modified claims felt false — one outlet suggested that Cheuko served with the French special forces in Iraq during operation Iraqi Freedom, a conflict that the country quite famously never participated in in the first place.
In the United States, verifying military service, or someone’s name, age and any number of other facts, is something accomplished via public records requests or by using any number of Internet databases. Though privacy laws vary from state to state and municipality to municipality, it’s usually a relatively easy exercise, if you have a bit of patience.
Things are more difficult in France, where Cheuko lived for at least five years. For one, much of the work has to be done in person. Everybody is watching Messi and we’re all eager to learn about his bodyguard, but not all of us are able to board a flight to Paris on a wild-goose chase for Cheuko’s date of birth or military service records.
So we turn to the other commonly parroted aspect of Cheuko’s mythology: the fact that he was at one time a professional MMA fighter. This part of his story is decidedly more real, but still complex. Videos exist on YouTube and Facebook of Cheuko participating in at least one fight that was clearly sanctioned in some way, shape or form; it’s unclear, though, what the extent of his career was or whether he was ever paid to fight. Cheuko has no profile on any of the Internet’s various fight sports databases and beyond a few video snippets, there’s not much other evidence to speak of.
“He probably did some MMA training, fought at some random (amateur) fight and now uses ‘I’ve been a MMA fighter’ to improve his curriculum,” says Necrocrawler, an otherwise anonymous forum user.
Our search for a more reliable source than Necrocrawler leads us to Luis Aguirre Elias, Cheuko’s current trainer. We’ve already reached out to Tiger Muay Thai gym in Thailand, the gym that sponsored Cheuko in those clips we’ve seen online, and they’ve declined to chat, just like the other half-dozen Instagram friends of Yassine’s who we’ve pursued over the preceding weeks. Elias, though, is game to talk.
Elias first met Cheuko in Thailand, at that aforementioned gym.
“I didn’t know him well over there,” says Elias, “And we didn’t really have any conversations. When he arrived here, though, he went to the gym where I teach — I saw him and then we started talking and we very quickly became friends. He had one or two fights for Tiger Muay Thai, professional fights, and then he started to train with me, in my class.”
Another detail confirmed, then. In the end, whether Cheuko was paid or not is largely irrelevant and simply does not affect how very clearly capable he is in the ring. In the one full fight that exists on YouTube, he effortlessly dispatches his opponent and looks almost bored doing it.
“He’s a good fighter,” says Elias. “He doesn’t have much professional experience but his technique and balance is excellent. I’m training him to improve those things even more, and also to put in a bit of my style, as well. We’ve also worked on his grappling, as well — he’s also very good at grappling.”
He says Cheuko is down-to-earth and friendly, given his profile. There’s another bit of mythology about Cheuko that’s been parroted around these days — that he makes $3 million a year bodyguarding Messi. Those reports are even more tenuous than others, but the rumor has been passed around on TikTok and on media outlets alike. If it’s true — and it seems highly, highly unlikely that it is, the money isn’t getting to Cheuko’s head.
“He is a very good person,” says Elias. “Very humble. Anybody can come talk to him and he treats everyone the same. Some people, when they have a job like the one he has — a bodyguard of some important person — they become arrogant, they just become a bad person. Yassine is not like that at all. He takes his job seriously but he’s going to treat everyone very good. If you don’t recognize him, he’ll never tell you what he does, that he’s Messi’s bodyguard and all of that.”
Elias laughs when we bring up Cheuko’s alleged history in the U.S. military.
“What I can say is that he’s not American, of course,” he says. “You read that he’s an ‘American Navy SEAL.’ People have said a lot of things about Yassine. I have to say that it wasn’t him saying any of that.”
Cheuko has posted Instagram stories of his training routine with Elias, which looks intense. He looks like he’s in great shape and surely, if he wanted to step in the ring again in a sanctioned bout, there would be no shortage of suitors. If someone is willing to pay him $25,000 to take his clothes off, can you imagine the drawing potential of a pay-per-view bout featuring “Messi’s Navy SEAL bodyguard,” basis in fact aside.
He wouldn’t be entirely uninterested, Elias says, but his current work with Inter Miami would keep him from doing so. That job also presents another impediment to his training routine: he can never really get punched in the face.
“Obviously in training sometimes we get bruised eyes, bruises all over the place,” says Elias. “Yassine, he cannot be like that anymore.”
“He needs to be pretty all of the time.”
The technical area is a bit of a sacred place during games, the exclusive domain of a team’s head coach as he observes play and makes occasional adjustments. At Inter Miami, though, Tata Martino has learned to share this space with Cheuko. He never had to do it at Barcelona, or with the Argentine national team, where Martino served as Messi’s head coach for short stretches of his career, but with Inter Miami, he doesn’t have much of a choice.
Messi has always been a famously stationary player and Cheuko is likely thankful for this, as part of his job, it seems, is to stalk the sidelines during play, positioning himself perfectly to intercept any potential pitch invaders. He is Messi’s ultimate defender in a way, shadowing him in the same way so many players have over the past 20 years.
Cheuko will often cut right through Martino’s technical area or weave behind him and in front of Miami’s bench. It has taken some getting used to, but Martino seems unbothered.
“This didn’t happen with the Argentina national team nor with Barcelona,” he says. “But I understand why it’s happening now. Honestly, I’m not the one who has to understand it. It’s more of an issue for our opponents. It can become a bit of an inconvenience for them, to have someone in that part of the field. But they have to understand who’s involved here and that it’s necessary in order to avoid any kind of problem. With some goodwill, and if we do our part, and if our opponents can learn to accept it, then we can all move forward with it.”
There is plenty to unpack with Martino during our phone call just a week after Miami hoisted the Leagues Cup championship. After 20 minutes or so, though, we steer the conversation toward the important stuff. Martino seems almost relieved to finally be asked about Cheuko.
“I’m going to take advantage of this conversation with you to say something that I’ve wanted to say, but I haven’t had the opportunity to do so,” says Martino. “The reality is that so many people invent stories that end up causing problems for the protagonists involved. He had never been to the United States. He wasn’t in the war or part of the U.S. military. All of those reports about him over the past weeks are all false.”
We offer a chuckle.
“The fact that you don’t sound surprised,” says Martino, “tells me that you already knew this. So I think it’s prudent to say this. He’s an excellent guy who works with a lot of dedication, always focused. And he’s a close part of our staff, as well.”
For now, then, Yassine Cheuko remains a relative mystery, aside from the guarded comments that those close to him are willing to offer. And because of that, people will continue to seek more info about the man who protects Messi.
Martino has advice for them.
“At least confirm things instead of repeating what one outlet says,” says Martino. “Then the next outlet repeats the same report and so on. The whole world is watching Inter Miami because of Leo. And because (Yassine works) closely with Leo, those reports become a giant smoke bomb that is false and that can cause issues for a guy who is a very good person.”
(Top photos: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Harry How/Getty Images; Design: Sam Richardson)