Lionel Messi may be big fish in small MLS pond but ambition remains high

Struggling Inter Miami need skills of Argentine great and his former Barca teammate Sergio Busquets

Lionel Messi during his unveiling as an Inter Miami player at the DRV PNK Stadium in Florida. AFP
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Lionel Messi is due at his first practice session for his new club Inter Miami on Tuesday. He can’t wait, he told a full stadium of expectant fans who had turned up and queued simply to see his unveiling.

Once on the training pitch, he will hope the weather is kinder than it was on Sunday, rain having disrupted his lavish official presentation. And that a good portion of the training is devoted to his team’s defensive organisation.

The anticipated impact of Messi’s move to the US, to a league of steadily improving strength and popularity and to a country less than two years away from hosting a World Cup, is huge.

As the ceremony put together for his arrival – "The Unveil" as it declared itself, or "The PresentaSIon", with a play on the word "si" ("yes" in Spanish) – made clear.

A range of celebrities and sporting stars sent video messages. A special walkway was erected at the site in Fort Lauderdale. The event was oversubscribed, some eager fans reportedly sneaking in without tickets.

There were one or two technological glitches in the show and a delay to proceedings caused by the rainfall.

“Miami weather,” the club’s managing owner Jorge Mas called it, a reminder that the Florida that appears on postcards, sun-kissed and tourist-friendly, is only part of the picture of what will be Messi’s new home at least until 2025, the 36-year-old having signed a two-year contract.

This bold sporting marriage, between the 21st century’s finest footballer and an 11-year-old club in a relatively young professional league. may also face some early squalls on the pitch. The evening before Messi’s unveiling, his teammates-to-be were being beaten 3-0 away at St Louis City, who are new to the top division of MLS.

It was Inter Miami’s 11th successive match without a win. They are bottom of the Eastern Conference, and, after 14 losses from 22 matches of the 2023 league campaign, currently the worst team of all 29 sides across both Eastern and Western Conferences.

All three St Louis goals came from set-pieces, the first two from headers from corners, and it may just be that, putting aside the stardust generated by Messi, the most immediately positive news for Inter Miami is that Sergio Busquets, Messi’s friend and former Barcelona teammate, was also presented to fans.

Busquets, the former Spain captain and for much of the past 15 years a peerless operator in defensive midfield, may win some of the sorts of aerial battles Miami’s back line failed at in St Louis. He ought to tighten up a rearguard that last kept a league clean sheet in early March.

He should certainly help in retaining and gaining the possession Messi will need if he is to provide the regular thrill that has led his new employers to raise the ticket prices hugely, to give Messi a shareholding in the club and persuaded the MLS and its broadcast partners to commit some of their television income specifically to US football’s most significant brand ambassador since David Beckham, now part of the Inter Miami ownership group, moved to America in 2007.

Beckham was among those formally greeting Messi on a wet Sunday night, to a stadium a good 40-minute drive from the centre of Miami, that is only a borrowed home for the club, pending their move to a bespoke arena.

Its capacity has been temporarily raised above its normal 18,000 that, for Messi and Busquets – who spent most or all of their club careers so far based at Barcelona’s 90,000-seat Camp Nou – may seem rather quaint.

But Messi said he was surprised how quickly he “felt at home” in his new environment, a destination he chose ahead of the option of staying for a third season at Paris Saint-Germain, whom he joined from Barcelona in 2021, or moving to the Saudi Arabian Pro League.

There will be friendly faces. Besides Busquets and possibly Jordi Alba, another former Barca colleague who Inter Miami have approached, there are compatriots among his new teammates. But striker Nicolas Stefanelli and defender Franco Negri, two 28-year-olds who have never been capped by Argentina, are hardly of the same calibre as the countrymen who Messi captained to victory at the World Cup less than eight months ago.

The club’s head coach, Gerardo Martino, is an old ally from Barca and the Argentina national team, brought in last month.

Martino knows, Messi or no Messi, there is work ahead. After overseeing the loss in St Louis, he welcomed the arrival of the “best player in the world,” warning: “We have to have patience.”

Updated: July 18, 2023, 2:52 AM