Lionel Messi Has Earned His American Victory Lap
4:27 PM EDT on August 10, 2023
What do you do after you've done it all? That was the question before Lionel Messi earlier this summer, when he had to choose the next destination of a career already cast in gold. Winning the World Cup with Argentina really did complete the story of his playing career, one that had unfolded over 20 years and had at last reached a final, thrilling, triumphant climax, which immediately and permanently canonized it as one of the greatest stories any sport has ever told. And yet, for Messi there was still soccer to play, goals to score, fans to thrill, and adoration to bask in along his hopefully long ride into the sunset. So we return to the question: What do you do when, after 20 joyous but also grueling years of trying, you've run your race and won everything that was there to be won? Naturally, you take a victory lap.
Messi admitted he was after as much when he first announced his decision to take his talents to South Beach with MLS franchise Inter Miami. Once it became clear that his dream of a Last Dance–style farewell tour at Barcelona was unlikely to materialize, Messi set his sights on America. At the club level, his time with Paris Saint-Germain was mostly difficult and unsatisfying. It was born from heartbreak, seen in his tear-soaked goodbye press conference after being forced out at Barcelona, and died in acrimony, heard in the PSG fans' lusty boos aimed at Messi towards the end of yet another characteristically disappointing season for the rich but buffoonish club.
MLS offered a respite from the bitterness of Paris and the risks and challenges of Europe. "I'm also at a point where I want to get out of the spotlight a bit, to think more about my family," Messi told Barcelona-based paper Sport when he went public with his decision to join Inter Miami in June. "That month was spectacular for me when we won the World Cup, but apart from that, it has been a difficult time for me and I want to rediscover my enjoyment, to enjoy my family, my children, the moment." Or, as he put it later in the same interview, "After winning the World Cup and not being able to go to Barça, it was time to go to the American league to experience football in a different way and enjoy the day-to-day. Obviously with the same responsibility and the same desire to want to win and to always do things well. But with more peace of mind."
If Messi came to Miami looking to get his happiness and tranquility back, it sure seems like he's already found it. His first month in the U.S. has been quite literally spectacular. This includes the fittingly extravagant (and fittingly rain-drenched) Miami welcome party where he and long-time former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets were unveiled as new Inter Miami players, but the most striking moments have come on the pitch. If there was any doubt that soccer fans were in for something special from Messi's Miami era, it was erased in his first appearance for the team, when he decided a Leagues Cup match by coming off the bench and scoring a last second free-kick winner.
And the feats haven't stopped there. Next up was Atlanta in a match that doubled as Messi's home debut. Before a sea of pink that rippled and roared with his every touch, he scored two goals and added an assist. Against Orlando City a week later, the Argentine scored another brace in a 3-1 win. Then, last Sunday, Messi had what the highlights would have me believe his finest outing yet, adding two more goals in an eight-goal thriller that saw Miami come back against and then sneak past Dallas in a penalty shootout.
It's worth pointing out that none of this very serious. This is, after all, MLS, a league currently between identities as it attempts to transition from its early status as a glorified retirement league (less "Galácticos" and more "Aged Zidanes and Never-were Pavones") with delusions of grandeur into something of a talent incubator for promising youngsters from across the Americas who are looking for a bridge to Europe. This is also Inter Miami, a fledgling franchise that, from its knock-off name right down to its Instagram-friendly uniforms, practically screams its aspirations to be first and foremost a salable brand. Joining Messi in Miami is the aforementioned Busquets as well as former Barça buddy Jordi Alba and also former Barça and Argentina national team manager, Gerardo Martino. Rumor had it that Miami has attempted to surround Messi with additional members of his friend circle, like Luis Suárez and Andrés Iniesta, but ultimately couldn't close the deals. If I were someone concerned with the optimal construction of Inter Miami's roster, I'm not sure trying to rebuild the core of a Barcelona team that was too old for the elite five years ago would be my favorite strategy.
It's really funny watching Messi's highlights. Seeing them, you are at once in awe of his enduring, stratospheric talent, and also stupefied by the slapstick defending from the other side. MLS often holds itself up as a notably physical league, which is true but not exactly in a flattering way. Indeed, the league is built around athleticism and matches are often played at a high rhythm, but it's mostly because the bulk of the players lack the skills for anything more sophisticated. When a legit technician joins the league, someone like Messi or Carlos Vela or Sebastian Giovinco, instead of shrinking under the brute strength of their opponents, they immediately run circles around them.
Watch those Messi highlights above from the Dallas game, and look how the opponents don't seem to be aware of the possibility that they might, you know, get close enough to him to try to obstruct his path. It's like they think he has a force field around him or something. For more laughs, check out the frankly shocking display of flat-footed ball-watching here on this Messi goal against Orlando:
But anyone focusing only on the unseriousness here is missing the forest for the trees. Messi didn't come to MLS to be serious; he came to be happy. And maybe the thing you can glean most clearly from all the videos of Messi's exploits is that he and every single person in the stadium with him is having an absolute blast. The defending might be a nightmare, but the dribbles and passes and goals are fantastic to watch—and, even more importantly, they put huge smiles on the faces of Messi, his teammates, and the Miami coaching staff. Each mesmerizing intervention of his left foot sends the fans in the stadium into raptures, regardless if the game is in Miami or elsewhere.
MLS, Inter Miami (after four games, Messi's seven goals put him fourth on Miami's all-time leading scorers list), the Leagues Cup—all of them might be chintzy entities lacking much real history or stakes, but that's all beside the point. Messi isn't there for the soccer; he's there for the circus, for the big, well-lit stage upon which he can do what brings him joy and riches, in front of an audience totally enthralled by his mere presence, eager to lavish him with their adoration and gratitude. And while I believe that it does matter how a league or a team is founded, a genuine culture of fandom and appreciation can grow from even the most fetid of swamps. (It's fitting that Messi has traded PSG for MLS, when they exist on different points of the same soccer-but-not-really spectrum, and it's also interested seeing MLS revert back to its old bread-and-circuses model the moment it gets another true superstar.)
You could call Messi's sensational start to his American journey the stuff of story books, but to do so would be to forget that what we're seeing is the epilogue of a story that's already been told. But if the relief that came from the 2021 Copa América and the 2022 World Cup revealed that Messi's story is ultimately a comedy, then it's only right that it would end with a huge, garish happy ending.
So yes, Messi in MLS is a bit of a joke. But good jokes make you smile and laugh and bring people together, and if anyone deserves to go out grinning, to massive applause, it's Lionel Messi. And thankfully, it looks like he still has many more jokes up his sleeve.