How Lionel Messi and Inter Miami broke America: From armed guards to Kardashians in the crowd

Messi fever has gripped the United States from Miami to LA, from pitch invaders to Hollywood stars, writes Lawrence Ostlere. But can Major League Soccer seize the moment?

Wednesday 20 September 2023 14:44 BST
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<p>Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup</p>

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup

Lionel Messi is the only footballer whose shadow carries a gun.

While he plays for Inter Miami, his bodyguard stalks the touchline: Yassine Cheuko is an ex-Navy Seal with a thick beard and a shaved head who treats his client like a president in a warzone, staring down giddy autograph-hunters and swatting away selfie-chasing children. During a recent match, a young pitch-invader in a Messi shirt made a dash towards his hero only to be walloped by Cheuko’s torso on arrival. Messi is like the sun: by all means enjoy his presence and bask in his glow, but by god do not look him in the eye – and if you touch him, you’re dead.

It is just one of the more bizarre symptoms of Messi fever which has gripped Miami and Major League Soccer since his arrival in June. It began before he kicked a ball: Messi’s pink shirt outsold any sports jersey in history in its first 24 hours, generating $600m to surpass Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United and Tom Brady’s move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Miami’s Instagram account exploded from 1 million to 15 million followers, a bigger audience than every NFL team. Kim Kardashian bought tickets to his debut, while the list of special guests to watch him play at Los Angeles Galaxy was like Wimbledon’s Royal Box on steroids, featuring LeBron James, Selena Gomez, Owen Wilson, Gerard Butler, Leonardo DiCaprio and genuine royalty in Prince Harry, to name but a few.

On the pitch Messi has been phenomenal, even at 36 years old and in the winter of his career: 11 goals and five assists in 11 games, and one trophy already. He has turned a terrible team into a good one, lifting Miami off the bottom of the table to be in with a chance of reaching US soccer’s Super Bowl equivalent, the MLS Cup, in December.

He has brought with him from Barcelona two close allies: the left-back Jordi Alba, who built a career pretending to cross the ball only to cut back for Messi to score, and the great midfield conductor Sergio Busquets. It is a bit like a singer bringing along his sound and lighting technicians – not the full band but enough to put on a show. Perhaps his most memorable moment so far came in the final of the Leagues Cup against Nashville: as the ball bounced to Messi arriving on the edge of the box, the commentator let out a foreboding “uh oh” before he shuffled away from two defenders and curled the ball into the top corner.

Major League Soccer is rightfully indulging in the moment. “The 🐐 plays here,” reads the Twitter bio these days. This is now an unprecedented window of opportunity: the US will host the Copa America in 2024, the Club World Cup in 2025, the men’s World Cup in 2026 and quite possibly the women’s World Cup in 2027 too. The football landscape is more competitive than ever amid the aggressive emergence of the Saudi Pro League and the greed of Europe’s superpowers, but if MLS cannot shed its image as a paid vacation for retirees and establish something serious now, it never will.

That mission was part of Miami’s sales pitch to Messi. David Beckham and his fellow owners knew they couldn’t compete with the base salary being offered in Saudi Arabia, but they could offer other benefits which the Saudis couldn’t. They appealed to Messi’s family – he already owned a home in Miami, from where it is relatively easy to fly back to Argentina, and the Messis have enjoyed partying with the Beckhams behind the scenes. And they included huge commercial investments, like a share in sales of MLS broadcaster Apple, with whom Messi had an existing relationship, and a stake in Inter Miami which he can activate when he departs. Messi was convinced by the long-term opportunities for his brand and his legacy in North America.

Messi is presented by Miami owners (from right) David Beckham, Jose Mas and Jorge Mas

He was also wooed by some romantic history. Pele became a pioneer when he turned down offers across Europe to join the New York Cosmos in 1975. It had appealed to his ego to be the catalyst who made US soccer catch fire, and he was certainly that: the Cosmos played in front of 200 people before Pele, yet two years later they were filling the Giants Stadium with 77,000 converts. Beckham himself has had the greatest impact in America since Pele, and Messi is next in the dynasty.

The problem for MLS is where to go next. Each new star since Beckham delivered another flurry of excitement – Thierry Henry, Kaka, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney – but there is no footballing high greater than watching Messi, no bigger dopamine hit than seeing his feet shuffle into life and create magic. Messi is football hedonism, and when he goes he cannot simply be replaced by a bigger, shinier star. The come down will hurt.

How do you sell yourself as a serious sporting product when one player is that much better than the rest?

So MLS has a plan to harness the hype and turn it into something that will last. Last year the league ditched long-term broadcast partner ESPN and signed with Messi’s friends at Apple, in what represented the tech company’s biggest step yet into the sports arena. Apple committed to a 10-year contract worth $250m per year for the right to show MLS on its platforms, and more lucrative media deals will follow. Long-time MLS commissioner Don Garber wants to invest in youth development, better stadiums and infrastructure for the long-term success of American soccer.

But the league’s immediate need is to acquire talent, and here the clubs are met with restrictions. The MLS adheres to a strict salary cap designed to stop clubs overspending. It can be dodged via the designated player rule – or Beckham Rule – which allows each team to pay three star players more than the salary cap, but unless restrictions loosen further it will be impossible for the biggest teams in the league to sign more elite talent. Miami have certainly filled their quota and are in no position to sign more ex-Barcelona stars until those rules change.

Fans in Los Angeles are transfixed on Messi as he prepares to take a corner

All the while, the danger is that Messi makes football look so easy, he undermines the league’s integrity. The drop-off from European football or the World Cup to MLS is a void – not just physically and technically, but in its tactical sophistication and defensive organisation. The worst MLS teams, of which Miami were one before Messi, match the upper echelons of England’s League Two, according to the models of consultancy Twenty First Group. That’s like dropping Messi into Gillingham’s first XI: how do you sell yourself as a serious sporting product when one player is that much better than the rest?

It will be a hard journey to raise standards across the board, but Messi does at least provide the best possible platform from which to grow. Most European football fans have been devotees for a long time, but now the gospel of Messi is spreading throughout the United States. New followers are flocking to see him in the flesh. So enjoy watching Messi, America. Seize the moment. Just don’t try to touch him.

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