‘As if Michael Jordan is going to play basketball in the Netherlands’
“They hardly know where to look for it here,” Maarten Paes, former NEC and FC Utrecht goalkeeper, articulates the mood in soccer-loving America. “You could compare it to Michael Jordan coming to play basketball in the Netherlands.”
In short, the news that none other than Lionel Messi will soon be showing his skills in Major League Soccer, the professional soccer league in the United States, has struck like the proverbial bomb on the other side of the Atlantic. The Argentine, who has seen it all after two seasons with Paris Saint-Germain, will continue his career with Inter Miami.
“Fantastic news,” confirms the 25-year-old Paes, who plays in the MLS with FC Dallas. “Since I arrived here a year and a half ago, the league has been growing like crazy. And this is another boost. I already saw the ticket prices coming up from his first matches. Well, those are skyrocketing.”
Messi joins the list of illustrious names that have come to enrich the American soccer league in the distant and also near past. Think Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruijff, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney. But as seven-time world footballer of the year and for barely six months reigning world champion, the Argentine, who celebrates his 36th birthday later this month, surely takes the crown.
If contract talks go according to plan, Messi will be linked from July 1 to Inter Miami, of which David Beckham, who himself traded Real Madrid for LA Galaxy in 2007, is president and co-owner. And then, during the Leagues Cup, a competition for clubs from the U.S. and Mexico, Paes may just come face to face with the man he knows only from TV. “Yes, the world is not over yet,” the Nijmegen native realizes all too well.
Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami saw the light of day in 2018 thanks to Beckham, who had stipulated when he came to the MLS in 2007 that he would be allowed to start a club for relatively little money (just under 25 million euros). He found two wealthy co-owners in Jorge and José Mas, Florida-born brothers of Cuban descent.
The brothers quickly named Messi their ultimate goal. He should bring more attention to Inter Miami, which played its first MLS game in 2020. Even in Miami itself, where the Heat basketball players, currently engaged in a fierce battle for the NBA title, the Marlins’ baseball players, the Dolphins’ American-football players and the Panthers’ ice hockey players still rival the soccer club in terms of popularity.
Fifteenth and final
That will partly have to do with The Pinks’ modest role in the league. With eleven defeats and only five wins, Miami, where 32-year-old goalkeeper Nick Marsman (former FC Twente and -Feyenoord, among others) has to settle for the role of reserve, is currently fifteenth and last in the Eastern Conference.
It is therefore likely that it will not stop at attracting Messi, and more reinforcements are in the offing. For example, his friend and former Barcelona comrade Sergio Busquets also seems to be in talks with the club. The shirts with jersey numbers 10 and 5 are reportedly already ready for the duo.
Barcelona was the club where Messi, who played seventeen seasons at the Catalan club where he captured 10 national titles and won the Champions League four times, would have loved to return. His old love, however, could not manage his arrival financially and ‘La Pulga’ (The Flea) did not have to think about another European club for a while.
Thanks in part to Apple, which owns the broadcasting rights to the MLS and has a four-part documentary in store on Messi, and sports brand Adidas, Miami was able to do business with the world champion, who, moreover, does not go for the bottom line. Otherwise, he would have opted for the few hundred million euros waiting for him in Saudi Arabia.
Luxury residential tower
That Miami charms him more than the Middle Eastern sandbank, by the way, is no surprise. Messi already came there regularly with his family and owns an apartment in those parts – for which he paid 4.6 million euros in 2019 – and the entire ninth floor of a luxury residential tower, which cost him 6.7 euros two years ago. The family man, who would rather see his three young sons grow up in the U.S. than in Saudi Arabia, therefore knows what to do there.
His choice of Inter Miami made Barcelona president Joan Laporta somewhat badinarily sigh to understand and respect Messi’s decision “to want to compete in a league with fewer demands, further away from the limelight and pressure to which he has been exposed in recent years.”
But those spotlights are precisely what American soccer craves, which has already struck a major blow with the winning of next year’s Copa América and the 2026 World Cup co-hosted with Canada and Mexico.
Fastest growing top soccer league
The MLS is not only the fastest-growing top soccer league in the world, on the ranking of average spectator numbers it ranks sixth globally. One is therefore gilded by the impending entrance of the world star, although the 18,000-spectator DRV PNK Stadium in nearby Fort Lauderdale, where Inter Miami plays, is making a modest contribution.
“It’s kind of reminiscent of Beckham when he came here,” responded Nashville defender Walker Zimmerman, a regular on the U.S. national team. “You see how the league has changed in the fifteen years since he arrived. And hopefully in fifteen years, we’ll see that because of Messi’s arrival, the league has grown again. In any case, I think it’s great.”
His German teammate Hany Mukhtar, the top scorer in the MLS last season with 23 goals, can only agree. “It’s a huge win for everyone involved in the MLS. I think it says a lot about the league here: that it’s growing.”