‘Transformational’ moment: Lionel Messi set for Inter Miami debut

The Argentinian World Cup winner can help boost Major League Soccer and interest in football in the US, experts say.

Lionel Messi in pink Inter Miami shirt
Lionel Messi's will make his debut against Mexican side Cruz Azul [Major League Soccer via USA Today Sports/Reuters]

The anticipation is almost over.

Lionel Messi is expected to take the pitch for Inter Miami CF for the first time on Friday.

Even before his debut, the Argentinian superstar’s arrival is showing signs that it could be a massive gain for Inter Miami, Major League Soccer (MLS) and football in the United States.

“You’ll look years from now and see this as a transformational moment for Major League Soccer and our sport,” Daniel Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president for communications, told Al Jazeera.

Ahead of Inter Miami’s clash against the Mexican side Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, an annual cup-style tournament featuring all teams from the MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX, fans across south Florida could be seen wearing Messi’s Argentina and Inter Miami jerseys, with murals of him also going up.

“It’s just palpable,” Alex Windley, a freelance writer who covers the MLS told Al Jazeera. “The excitement, you can feel it in the air.”

She said there is confidence that Messi can turn it all around for the struggling Inter Miami, starting with his likely substitute appearance on Friday. “I expect typical Messi, cutting in on his left foot and combining with … Miami’s strikers and just kind of dictating that flow on the attack in the final third to help Miami get over that hump that they’ve been struggling with,” Windley added.

Growing interest

Messi’s MLS debut will have to wait until next month but fans looking to see him the next time Inter Miami are playing in their city will find that tickets are several fold what they normally go for.

That is only an early indication of what the World Cup winner’s unparalleled fame and skills can bring to the MLS, experts have said.

For example, Inter Miami’s social media following has exploded after Messi announced last month his intention to join the side. On Instagram, the club now has 10.5 million followers, up from around one million in early June.

“Just the interest and eyeballs on this are going to be tremendous. And I think that raises the level for Major League Soccer overall,” said Calen Carr, a former player and match analyst for MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

Carr told Al Jazeera that Messi is arriving in the US at the right place – Miami is a diverse city seen as a “gateway” to Latin America – and at the right time when the sport is on an upwards trajectory already.

The US is set to host the Copa America tournament next year and will co-host the next World Cup with Mexico and Canada in 2026. The following summer, the US will be home to the first expanded Club World Cup.

“There’s just so much energy and excitement and momentum behind that. It kind of feels like there’s just this kind of rocket fuel behind us,” Carr said.

While many football teams in North America are home to rising stars and accomplished veterans, Messi is a generational talent, who can single-handedly make an impact on how the league is perceived, analysts have said.

The 36-year-old signed a contract that would keep him in Miami until 2025 after ending a two-year spell with Paris Saint-Germain and turning down offers from clubs in the Saudi league and a chance to rejoin his old club, Barcelona.

He was officially presented last week alongside club co-owners businessman Jose Mas and retired England star David Beckham in front of an adoring crowd in Inter Miami’s 18,000-seat stadium.

‘Seminal moment’

Inter Miami have been struggling with results since their first season in 2020.

But this month, they have already strengthened their ranks with top players, including a couple of Messi’s former Barcelona teammates: midfielder Sergio Busquets and fullback Jordi Alba. And there are rumours that veteran Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez – with whom Messi formed a fearsome striking partnership in Spain – may also make the move.

Messi will also link up with his former Barcelona and Argentina manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino who was appointed as Inter Miami’s head coach late in June.

Courtemanche described Messi’s arrival as a “seminal moment” that will help accelerate the league’s ascendency. To underscore the league’s rise, he pointed to growing in-stadium attendance, the commercial power of MLS clubs – with champions Los Angeles FC valued at $1bn – and a streaming deal with Apple this season.

“This is a player who had many options – heck, any option – for the next chapter of his career; he could have gone to any club in any league in the world. And he chose Major League Soccer.”

Footballing-wise, the MLS is not at the same level as some of Europe’s top leagues. English Premier League runner-ups, Arsenal, beat the MLS All-Star squad 5-0 this week.

But Courtemanche argued the league is closing the gap, noting that the MLS had more representation than any other league in the Western Hemisphere at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with 35 players.

‘Innovative’ MLS

The MLS, which features three Canadian teams, follows the model of other top US sports competitions with no promotion or relegation, rather than conventional, national league football seen throughout most of the world. Its 29 teams are split into two conferences in the east and the west of the US and Canada.

At the end of the regular season, top teams from each conference break into a knock-out style tournament, known as playoffs, with the winners crowned as the MLS Cup champions.

For now, Messi will have to pick Inter Miami up from the bottom of the Eastern Conference and into a playoff spot for a chance of MLS glory in his first season.

But his influence is poised to go far beyond the pitch.

Sunil Gulati, the former president of the US Soccer Federation, told Al Jazeera after Messi made his announcement in June that the Argentinian can help grow football fandom in the US like no other player.

“He’s a more well-known name than any soccer player in the world. He’s played for big clubs. He’s now a world champion; he’s won Copa America; he’s won everything there is in the sport,” Gulati said.

“He will appeal to so many people – soccer fans, as well as you casual observers who will be interested in seeing him play and get an appreciation for the sport that very, very few other players or people could bring.”

Source: Al Jazeera