Lionel Messi jogged a lap with his new teammates, took part in a warmup drill of players making short passes in a tight circle and before long tapped his left foot at a ball that wound up in the back of an open net.
Inter Miami’s new star wasted no time fitting right in.
The World Cup winner and seven-time Ballon d’Or recipient as the world’s best player took part in a training session with his new Major League Soccer club for the first time on Tuesday, three days after signing a 2 1/2 year contract that’ll pay him between $50 million and $60 million a year.
A helicopter hovered overhead, drones buzzed around the field and about 200 media members lined up toward the back of the complex to get a look at Messi. He, like newly signed Sergio Busquets — also a World Cup winner — went through a welcome tunnel as part of the first practice, which meant jogging past teammates as they lined up and clapped.
“With Leo coming here, it raises the bar again,” said Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham, who like Messi had an incredible career overseas before coming to MLS toward the end of his playing career. “It has the eyes of the world. Not just Argentina, but the eyes of the world.”
Messi was not made available for comment to the general media, nor were any other players or coach Tata Martino.
“It’s about legacy for him,” Beckham said of Messi. “He’s at the stage of his career where he’s done everything that any soccer player can do in a sport. He’s one of the greatest players, if not the greatest player, to ever play the game. So he’s still hungry. I’ve seen him on the training pitch. I know he’s still hungry. Sergio is exactly the same. And they’re the type of players that we want to bring to our club.”
Messi’s first match is expected to be Friday, a Leagues Cup contest at home against Cruz Azul. Some tickets are going for as little as $275 or so on the secondary market; some of the very best seats are exceeding $19,000. Prices have been fluctuating quite a bit and likely will continue doing so until game time.
Then again, someone might get front-row tickets for $1. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican candidate for president, has asked backers to “consider making a $1 donation” to get him on the debate stage — saying all such donors would be entered in a chance to be in the front row for Messi’s debut game.
Such is the power of Messi. Inter Miami hasn’t won an MLS match in more than two months; it has gone 0-8-3 in MLS play since beating New England on May 13.
Making the playoffs are a long shot for Miami. But there is hope for other trophies, such as Leagues Cup — a tournament between teams from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX, with both leagues shutting down regular play for the competition — and the U.S. Open Cup.
Inter Miami is in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup; it’ll play Cincinnati in late August. The final of that tournament is in September. And Beckham is taking a big-picture view of how the franchise is defining success right now.
“We feel we’ve succeeded,” Beckham said. “Is it good enough? No. We want to succeed on the field. We want to win trophies. That’s the most important thing. We do feel that succeeded, but short term success? We have Lionel Messi. That’s success. … The foundations are there. The foundations are there to succeed.”
Messi’s decision to play in the U.S. might be the biggest boost ever for American soccer on the pro stage. Some of the game’s biggest names — Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Thierry Henry and Beckham himself — have come to the U.S. toward the end of their careers, but landing a player still no worse than near the pinnacle of his game and just a few months removed from hoisting a World Cup is simply huge, especially with part of the next World Cup in 2026 set to be played on U.S. soil.
“It shouldn’t be lost on anybody that the timing is right,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said earlier this week. “Copa America will be here in 2024, Club World Cup will be here in 2025, the World Cup will be here in 2026. This is not a coincidence, right? It’s all part of our continual focus to do everything we can to make our league a league of choice, not just here, but around the world and be part of the conversation.”