Money and profile, sure, but what does Lionel Messi bring to Miami on the pitch? | Lionel Messi

Inter Miami are now the fifth most-followed American sports franchise on Instagram, their numbers leaping from 900,000 to almost nine million. They are having to expand their stadium and tickets for their remaining home games this season are going for $350. All this for a team that went into the weekend bottom of the Eastern Conference. Lionel Messi has already had an enormous impact on his new club. As the MLS commissioner, Don Garber, said, Messi’s move to the United States is a “massive financial opportunity”.

It’s easy to be seduced by this. It’s easy to be relieved that the greatest player of his generation will not be among those trading their integrity for a sackload of Saudi cash (although given Messi is an ambassador for Visit Saudi, that ship has perhaps already sailed). It’s easy to regard Messi as some sort of missionary, a modern-day Pelé, delivering football to the heathen.

Almost all the talk around his move has focused on what he will do for the profile of the franchise and the league, how he’ll make between $50m and $60m a year in salary and has been given equity in the club, as well as a proportion of MLS’s earnings from Adidas and Apple. He has also “created” a new sandwich in honour of the move for Hard Rock cafe. What has been missing – perhaps it’s gauche even to bring it up – is any discussion of actual football. Can he and Josef Martínez play together? How will he link up with Ben Cremaschi on the right? Are Inter better off with a back four or a three?

Certainly nobody seems to be given much thought to Rodolfo Pizarro, who was subbed 20 minutes into the second half of last week’s 2-2 draw with DC United and now finds his contract terminated to make way for Messi – collateral damage in this massive financial opportunity.

But let’s for a moment play the game. Let’s pretend this is a normal signing. What does Messi the player bring to Inter Miami? He had, in truth, been a problem for Barcelona for several years before he joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2021 and not just because of his extraordinary demands, although they were truly astonishing.

Joshua Robinson and Jon Clegg reveal in their book Messi vs Ronaldo, how Messi’s father, Jorge, suggested to the then Barça president, Josep Bartomeu, in 2017 that they might like to sign his son’s mate Ángel Di María from PSG. Barça didn’t really want him but made a token bid of €30m knowing it would be rejected; at which Jorge Messi asked them to give that spare €30m to Leo. Bartomeu, recognising where power at the club lay, complied.

Lionel Messi bends a 20-yard drive into the top corner 79 seconds into last month’s friendly for Argentina against Australia in Beijing
Lionel Messi bends a 20-yard drive into the top corner 79 seconds into last month’s friendly for Argentina against Australia in Beijing. Photograph: Molly Darlington/Reuters

Since Pep Guardiola’s departure in 2012, Messi’s contribution to Barça’s press had waned. He wandered about, reconnoitred the opposition, identified their weaknesses then exploited them. When he bent a 20-yard drive into the top corner 79 seconds into last month’s friendly for Argentina against Australia in Beijing, it was the first time he had scored a senior goal in the first two minutes of a game – in a career when he has scored 834 times.

There is something mesmerising about his minimalism. He has stripped the game back to its essentials; his greatest gift has perhaps been his capacity to select the lowest-tariff option necessary in any given situation. There is an impish grace to everything he does on a pitch and yet his success is rooted in cold, unfussy calculation.

But that lack of defensive work is problematic in the modern game. Between 2015, when they last won the Champions League, and 2021 when Messi left for PSG, Barcelona’s European campaigns were characterised by sudden, crushing defeats: 4-0 against PSG and then 3-0 against Juventus in 2016-17; 3-0 against Roma in 2017-18; 4-0 against Liverpool in 2018-19; 8-2 against Bayern in 2019-20; 4-1 against PSG in 2020-21.

With the ball, Barcelona were fine, but as soon as they could not dominate possession, their ageing midfield was left exposed by a forward line that offered very little protection. PSG with Messi twice lost in the last 16 of the Champions League.

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Messi did win the World Cup with Argentina. But in part it’s because the rest of the squad was overwhelmingly committed to helping Messi win the World Cup, compensating for his lack of defensive work; and in part it’s because international football, because of the relative lack of time players and coaches spend together, operates with less sophisticated structures than modern club football and so remains more able to accommodate individuals.

What that means for Inter Miami is very hard to say. It’s disappointing that the dismissal of Phil Neville has denied us the possibility of some extraordinary comedy, a sort of inverted Ted Lasso meets The Office. The appointment of Gerardo Martino makes sense as a pro-Messi move, given he is also from Rosario and coached him with Argentina and Barcelona, although it can’t be said either of those stints was particularly successful.

But there’s no reason to assume Inter would suddenly start dominating games in a way that will cover for Messi’s lack of defensive work. Perhaps the signing of Sergio Busquets will help them control midfield, but he is 34 and has never been quick.

With less gifted players around him than at Barcelona, it’s possible he could find it difficult to cope with the physicality of MLS. Perhaps the very presence of Messi will inspire those around him; it certainly should create space for others. The likelihood, though, barring an influx of new players or Martino having a truly transformational impact, is that Messi will produce a number of thrilling cameos in a team that don’t really threaten for major honours.

And perhaps that doesn’t really matter. This is about raising the profile of Inter Miami particularly and MLS in general, and about raising Messi’s status in the US. The deal will do that and it will make Messi richer. But it does say something about the condition of modern football that the marketing potential of the move so overshadows what it might mean on the pitch. This used to be a sport.