When Lionel Messi landed with an almighty thump in southern Florida last summer, joining Inter Miami of Major League Soccer, the timing was almost perfect. He was fresh from leading Argentina to their first FIFA World Cup win since 1986 and arrived soon after MLS launched into a new television era with Apple TV.
He would, unsurprisingly, become the face of the second half of 2023. The world’s greatest player would raise the profile of the league at home and abroad, his term in Miami coinciding with the build-up to the 2026 World Cup, to be co-hosted by the USA, Canada and Mexico.
Fans who had previously shown apathy or even ridicule towards their own domestic league were now interested, and prepared to pay, three, four, five, or six times the face value of a ticket when Inter Miami were in town. Teams were reporting a sell-out for the visit of Miami weeks in advance.
And the reason was quite clear. Messi-mania was in full swing.
It’s less an experiment and more a calculated punt by the marketing suits and owners overseeing MLS, the leading football league in the United States, which is on the verge of embarking on its 29th season.
When David Beckham joined LA Galaxy in 2007, it thrust the league into the spotlight, only then there was still some way to go as far as stadiums, TV coverage, quality of play and squad talent and depth. By the time Messi arrived, the improvements were real and tangible.
But the circus which followed Beckham during his time as a player has re-emerged with the arrival of Messi. And for all the positive press from his polished performances, it is dependent on the leading light appearing in every match.
As we know, in any sport, that is simply not possible. Messi, though still a magician, is in the autumn of his career and while being a monumental marketing asset to the league, he is first and foremost an athlete needed by his team. His fitness and well-being remains the priority.
Try telling that to the floating fans, happy to spend over the odds and yet deeply upset when the player’s well-being is deemed more important than their needs.
This was highlighted last season when he was carrying a knock and stayed behind as Inter Miami traveled to Atlanta. Fans, not interested in attending Atlanta games before or after, were seething at Messi’s no-show, and even went as far as to suggest he could turn up, step on the field and wave to the fans who had paid good money to watch him.
That circus I mentioned.
And this brings us to Inter Miami’s preseason tour to Asia, which included a 4-1 win over a local team in Hong Kong. Messi watched from the bench as he was not fully fit. The locals were not happy.
The Hong Kong government said, "The MSEC (Hong Kong’s major sports events committee) will take follow-up actions with the organizer according to the terms and conditions, which includes reducing the amount of funding as a result of Messi not playing the match."
David Beckham was booed as he attempted to thank fans for turning up, and Inter Miami head coach Tata Martino was forced to field questions as to why one player among his squad failed to feature.
This is Major League Soccer’s biggest headache around the Lionel Messi cavalcade, and it will continue for as long as he is a player in the league.
He is a marketing person’s dream and MLS will squeeze every last drop of his allure in a desperate attempt to impress a new generation of fan previously indifferent to the product.
Now, where the problem arises is when the league’s agenda doesn’t quite fit that of the player or the team. I am sure that will not be an issue; Messi and his people will make sure of that.
The backlash suffered in Hong Kong is not new. Anyone paying attention will have noted similar grumblings last season, though perhaps not on the scale seen here. But it’s an example of how the Messi project will upset as many people as it pleases, for he is unlikely to play in every match between now and when his contract is due to expire, at the end of the 2025 season.
Home teams will promote the living daylights out of Messi if they have Miami heading to their stadium, in the hope of selling out (and making additional revenue on the secondary market). But while they can control the pricing and sale of tickets, they have zero say as to whether Messi plays, how much he plays, whether he starts, or even if he leaves the Sunshine State.
Which then brings the additional questions. How many of those disgruntled fans who turned up in Atlanta to witness a Messi-less Miami will have left with their view of MLS enhanced? How many who were there to watch one player will have been impressed enough by the whole experience to return for a midweek match against (insert name of any other team here) and start supporting their local club?
Don't get me wrong, it's a nice problem to have but for all the good that Messi being in MLS will have on the MLS product, it comes with the risks mentioned above. The great man's mere presence, and the hype surrounding it, also suggests there remains work to be done for the league to stand without the need of a marketing Messiah two years shy of the FIFA World Cup returning.