Just moments after Inter Miami CF’s first loss of the season, a 1-0 defeat on the road to New York City FC on March 11 following a pair of wins to start the 2023 campaign, the team’s head coach Phil Neville maneuvered his way through the post-match press conference, when he was faced with a different, yet all-too-familiar question about superstar Lionel Messi.
“You’ve obviously been vocal about what Messi coming over would mean for MLS, to Miami,” the journalist started. “How much if at all do you view these games as a chance to show him what kind of team you have and why he should come over if that were to happen?”
Neville, pursed lips, shaking his head, responded succinctly, “He played for PSG today,” referring to Paris Saint-Germain, one of Europe’s most highly-regarded soccer clubs with a roster fielding world-renowned players like France’s Kylian Mbappe and Brazil’s Neymar alongside Messi — considered by many the world’s best current player even at age 35, and possibly even the greatest player of all time.
“He’s a PSG player,” Neville emphasized. “I’m concerned about the players we’ve got here. That’s not relevant tonight.”
Relevant or not in that moment, rumors of Messi coming to Miami this summer to play for Inter Miami have been hotter than a scalding day over Biscayne Bay.
Messi added to his lore in December by leading Argentina to World Cup victory and getting his second Golden Ball trophy, awarded to best player at the World Cup. He also won the Golden Ball in 2014, the year he got Argentina to the final, where the team lost to Germany in what then seemed like a best-case scenario to add an elusive title that would put him more on par with other all-time greats like Brazilian legend Pele and Argentina’s Messi precursor, Diego Maradona.
While he’s still passing milestones — getting his 800th career goal in an international match against Panama this past Thursday — he’s getting into the final chapters phase of a pro career that started in 2004.
Messi is out of contract with PSG at the end of the European season in May — potentially eligible to come to North America’s top-tier league Major League Soccer in the midst of its February-to-October season. The anticipation about him taking his talents to South Beach — which is how NBA superstar LeBron James put it in 2010 when he thrilled Miami sports fans with a similarly transcendental move — has reached a fever pitch.
Speculation about Messi’s was mounting even as anticipation for the 2022 tournament in Qatar that raised his profile even further ramped up. Would he stay in France? How about a possible return to Barcelona where he played most of his illustrious career? Or maybe a fairy tale ending back home in Argentina where he started it all?
And yet Inter Miami — an MLS team that only started play in 2020 — has managed to be included in the conversation. That certainly has something to do fellow global superstar David Beckham, who made a league-changing move to Major League Soccer back in 2007 and is now part of IMFC’s ownership group thanks to something set in motion with that move.
‘Every team would want that’
Beckham’s contract was one of a kind, an unthinkable offer to attract the global icon and superstar while still in his relative prime as a recent thirtysomething. Beckham was offered a massive contract as well as endorsement deals that were de rigueur for the time — as well as an unusual clause allowing him to purchase an expansion franchise for what would turn out to be a discounted price of $25 million upon his retirement.
Beckham eventually activated that clause in Miami, triggering speculation over which big names from the ranks of top European and South American soccer-playing national would join his brand new team.
“From the moment we announced we were coming to Miami, I’m not going to say who called me, but I had many phone calls from many different players, top players, saying ‘I’m in,” Beckham touted in his introductory press conference back in 2018.
Many speculated even then that Messi or Messi’s chief rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, could be one of those players. In 2020, as the team was set to play its inaugural match, Beckham again addressed the rumors.
“We keep hearing that,” he said with a sly chuckle. “We keep hearing about the players that get mentioned. But obviously, if any club around the world would have the chance of bringing Cristiano or Leo into their squad, then every team would want that of course.”
A March 4 report from The Athletic suggested MLS Commissioner Don Garber would be open to a unique and creative deal, potentially one similarly seismic in nature to Beckham’s a decade and a half ago, to lure Messi to the league.
“You’re dealing with perhaps the most special player in the history of the game,” Garber said. “So when there’s rumors of him connected to Miami, that’s great. And if it could happen, it would be terrific for MLS, it would be terrific for Messi and his family, and like everything with us, we try to run every opportunity down.”
While he didn’t reveal more than that, saying, “I can’t give any more details than that because we don’t have them,” it did reveal a willingness to be creative and understanding of what landing a player of Messi’s unique stature would mean.
Messi moves the needle
Messi’s appeal lies not only in what he does on the field, but how he drives social media — an increasingly-integral metric for sports franchises.
A Google search for “Messi” brings up nearly half a billion results in less than half a second. YouTube videos discussing him can rack up more than 100,000 views within hours of posting. Sportico reported that following his World Cup win on Dec. 18, Messi became only the second person in the world to surpass 400 million followers on Instagram, with Selena Gomez becoming the third earlier this week.
Though still behind Cristiano Ronaldo (with a staggering 518 million followers at that juncture), Messi did post a photo with the trophy that “broke the all-time record for likes on an Instagram post, which was previously 56 million on a 2019 post of an egg.”
On Facebook, Messi is one of just two soccer players with over 90 million followers — though, again, second to his Portuguese foil.
His popularity also translates to business: According to Spanish publication Marca, Messi PSG jerseys generated nearly a million euros in revenue within the first three hours of being available on the way to becoming the most popular club jersey in the world in 2022. Reuters reported that following the World Cup final, both Messi and Mbappe jersey sales were up 200 percent on the official PSG online store, and “Global sales of soccer gear were up more than 700% for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar versus the 2018 World Cup in Russia across the Fanatics network of online stores.”
By many metrics, Messi moves the needle — and online sports personalities know that.
For instances, it’s become a hot topic for the Dan Le Batard Show, the Miami-based reporter and former ESPN personality who branched out with own podcasting network in 2021.
But it’s not just limited to those based in Miami. Content creator Kevin Lopez, who posts videos at his Kevincho YouTube channel, primarily focuses on his hometown MLS team Sporting Kansas City. But his Argentine heritage and fandom led him to explore the idea of Messi to MLS in an online conversation with Tom Bogert, who reports on transfer rumors for MLSSoccer.com.
“If I was commissioner, I would be like every single one of us (owners), we need to get together to agree to whatever it takes to get this guy in,” Lopez declared. “We need to bend some rules. I don’t care. Even if (Inter Miami) are horrible, or they win three titles in a row, it’s gonna benefit the whole league.”
Lopez started his channel originally as a way to learn video editing and to have some fun commenting on the true crime shows that he and his wife enjoy.
But in 2021, he sat down in his gaming chair with his green screen background to watch his native Argentina play in the Copa America and something changed. A self-described tortured soul by nature, he knew this was a new avenue to discuss something he was passionate about as well.
And as they team progressed, and as Messi did his magic, interest in his channel grew, culminating with La Albiceleste winning winning the title.
“I thought being from Argentina, this is our last Copa America, this is our last tournament in my mind, this will be the last tournament Messi will have a chance at lifting a trophy,” he said. “I just thought I’ll make this side channel to do a watch along like they do in Europe or South America. It was a lot of fun.”
That momentum continued through this past World Cup, where again all eyes were on the record-setting seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. Lopez says he saw most engagement during Argentina games — people who either loved or hated Messi bantered back and forth.
Certainly, he sees the potential for eyes on his MLS content shoud Messi join up.
“During the World Cup, I had the most people in the chat,” he added. “I had people from all over the world who were just talking for two or three hours. If Messi comes, it’s going to be like that. People are not going to care about Sporting (Kansas City), people might not even care about Inter Miami. They’re just there so they hear the discourse about Messi.”
He predicts engagement related to virtually anything Messi might do in an MLS match.
“For me it’s going to be fast paced,” Lopez observed. “All content creators are going to benefit from this. Even just someone who is a generic MLS fan who makes content for the league — Messi makes one bad pass, content. Messi makes a crazy goal, content. Whatever it is, it’s going to be insane.”
Where celebrities want to be
“When I was awarded the team, there was only one city for me,” Beckham said confidently back in 2018. “I was drawn to this city the same way millions of people are. Diversity, the culture, the weather, the beaches, the people.”
Miami’s vibrant culture has brought celebrities from all over the globe to live as well as visit. Dubbed “The Gateway to the Americas,” the city’s rich Latin American culture permeates all aspects of life, from food to music to sport, and creates a one-of-a-kind environment.
Victor Drija is a Venezuelan singer from Miami and an avid Inter Miami fan who become good friends with fellow countryman Josef Martinez, who moved from rivals Atlanta United in the offseason to join the South Florida squad.
In between music sessions and beach photos, Drija enjoys discussing the team with his more than 1.5 million fans and followers on Instagram and Twitter.
“It’s fun to watch the game and just write a quick comment and send it. That’s how I get to interact with fans and use social media with my work.”
For all of these reasons and more, Drija contends that Miami is the perfect place for Messi’s brand of celebrity, culture, and lifestyle.
“This is like a melting pot of all cultures and people around the world,” he said. “You can see here the biggest artists from Mexico or Puerto Rico or Ecuador or Spain or wherever. Or the biggest soccer stars of one particular country. But here in Miami, it’s just like one more person.”
That combination of fame and facelessness can be very attractive, he added. Messi, who already owns a home in Miami, could perhaps experience a little more day-to-day normalcy with his family — in an environment Drija thinks he would be comfortable in.
“I find it fun because you can actually live your life here,” he observed. “You can live in a more calm way. I think you can take advantage of that. I think if you can learn from those cultures, eventually you’ll fit right in and be sharing with all of us. I actually don’t live in the Venezuelan neighborhood here in Miami, but if I miss home or want to connect, I know I can go there and get an empanada or whatever.”
On June 11, 2021, Bobby Page walked to the front door of his Jupiter, Florida, home to grab a package he’d been eagerly awaiting once he purchased online.
He rushes to open the box with a wave of euphoria: It’s a brand new custom jersey of his favorite team, Inter Miami CF, black and pink. And it’s emblazoned on the back in pink with the name and number of his favorite player — Leo Messi.
“I just knew that receiving the jersey itself, just seeing Messi on the back of an Inter Miami jersey was epic,” Page said. “And it was just a match made in heaven.”
This moment called for something special. Page and his family, originally from Argentina, have had season tickets to Inter Miami since the beginning of the club, and they’ve also traveled around the United States to see Messi in action every time he plays in the country.
So, Page neatly placed the jersey on a hanger and got out his phone to start recording. Ever so slowly, he rotated the jersey from front to back, to reveal “Messi 10” as the epic classical opera song “O Fortuna” blasted in the background.
“Every time you hear that song, you know something epic is about to go down,” Page added.
Originally a 13th-century medieval poem, “O Fortuna” tells the story of the fate awaiting the Greek and Roman gods and people as they cope with the inevitable passage of time. It dispels the notion of control over their destiny, but rather encourages them to treasure each moment along the way.
Some might see the similarities between Messi and those Greek gods. At 35 years old, the Argentinian maestro has little left to prove. With winning a recent World Cup trophy the last great hurdle he needed to accomplish in his career, and with Father Time always undefeated, it could be time to come to South Florida for a transcendent final chapter.
Although the original tweet was taken down by Twitter for “Oh Fortuna” violating its copyright guidelines, the meme has become a fan favorite for Inter Miami fans, shared amongst supporters as a constant reminder of their ambitions. A combination of epic and absurd, it’s the perfect fit for the club’s slogan, “Freedom to Dream.”
“It’s going to be chaos,” Page said, thinking about a future in which Messi’s wearing a similar jersey to the one he dreamed up. “I see so many people going to the games just for him. And it’s not just Miami. I mean you’re talking every away game is immediately going to start selling out because of his name.”
For the past two seasons, for every home match, Page has worn that Messi jersey. And at each one of those, at least one fan comes up to him to talk about it.
Like so many others, he reads online rumors about what is next for his all-time favorite player.
“He’s considered the greatest of all-time and the fact that there’s an opportunity that he could be playing right here in our backyard,” Page marveled. “That’s a dream come true.”
With Miami one of the host cities for the 2026 World Cup — and with the U.S., Canada and Mexico sharing honors welcoming the rest of the world — excitement about soccer has the potential to peak in that international city in three years’ time. But imagine the multiplicative effect of Messi playing in the city leading up to the follow-up tournament to his magical one, and that’s a dream come true for anyone with a vested interest in soccer’s success in the States.
Ian Hest has been a sports journalist and anchor for more than a decade. A native South Floridian, his work has been featured locally on NBC, Fox, ABC, ESPN Radio, the Sun-Sentinel, Rivals.com, and SB Nation. Nationally, he has covered the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, College Football and Basketball, as well as major events including the College Football Playoff, NBA Playoffs, NCAA Tournament, Miami Open, Honda Classic, College World Series and more.
Within soccer, he is the founder and host of The Heron Outlet, an independent media organization in South Florida covering Inter Miami, its associate clubs, and soccer in South Florida. He has covered everything from the USMNT, USWNT, Concacaf Gold Cup, MLS, MLS Cup Playoffs, MLS Combine, USL, and US Open Cup, as well as international matches involving Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Brazil and Argentina.
This story is part of the Pixel Pitch series, exploring the spaces where soccer, the internet and identity intersect. Pixel Pitch is a joint project partnering The Daily Dot with The Striker, a soccer-centric online publication “where every day is a soccer news day.”
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