Messi’s Next Moves Include a Victory Lap and a Lot of Questions

Worth it.

That’s what Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said earlier this week about the long and expensive pursuit of Lionel Messi. He doesn’t have buyer’s remorse.

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Not after Messi transformed a Leagues Cup match against a struggling LigaMx squad into a celebrity filled, sold-out show, then turned that desultory on-field tilt into an unforgettable performance by scoring a stunning free-kick goal in the 94th minute to give Miami a 2-1 win.

In the aftermath, Beckham appeared teary in the owner’s box and moments later fireworks filled the sky.

Beckham said the video has been viewed 3.5 billion times, and told MLS Season Pass, “Tonight’s a dream come true for everybody in this stadium to see, and everybody in this country, to see Leo step into MLS and perform. I don’t have many words for that.”

He likely wasn’t the only one getting a little verklempt. Managing owner Jorge Mas gave Messi a big kiss as he walked off the field and LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian celebrated in the seats. “This is going to give a level of global exposure for us that we never could have achieved without a player like Messi,” Don Garber, MLS commissioner, told The New York Times.

All of MLS as well as league partners Apple and Adidas have a lot invested in Messi’s American adventure. Inter Miami is paying him $50 to $60 million a year on a two-and-a-half year contract plus a stake in the team when he’s done playing and the two A-list companies are reportedly filling his bank account with revenue sharing deals.

The score is particularly meaningful for Apple, which is in the first year of 10-year, $2.5 billion deal to stream MLS games on Apple TV+. The company has so far been tight-lipped about Messi inspired sign ups for the streaming service, but it’s safe to say that anyone considering the $16.95 a month membership that hadn’t yet acted received another dose of inspiration.

It’s one of those rare occasions where everyone wins, the league, Commissioner Garber, the sponsors, the team and Messi himself.

At least for now.

Inter Miami next plays on Tuesday, when it will face Atlanta United at home in another League’s Cup match, but later this season, Inter will travel to Atlanta, which plays on an artificial turf field, a surface Messi has never played on. Expectations arose that United and the five other MLS teams who play on turf would switch to at least temporary grass fields when Miami comes to town.

But Atlanta has said it will not make the change and it’s uncertain what the other five teams—New England, Portland, Seattle, Charlotte and Vancouver—will do. It’s also unclear if Messi will play when Miami visits those stadiums—he didn’t enter Friday’s game until after half time as he works his way back into top form. He is a spry 36, but the future economics of the deal may rely on how well he holds up physically.

“It has a lot more to do with more than whether [he’s] on turf or grass,” MLS deputy commissioner Gary Stevenson said in an interview with Sportico last week. “Do they want [him] to play twice a week? Is there a tweak in the hamstring? The amount a player plays is decided between the player and his coach … Certainly that question is going to come up and we’re going to have more discussion internally on the best way to handle that.”

Questions about the team also cloud Messi’s future. Miami currently sits last in the Eastern Conference at 5-3-14, making a Messi playoff run look like a longshot. Even with longtime running mate Sergio Busquets onboard, how bright can Messi shine on a bad MLS level team? Will the enthusiasm, both his and that of the fans, hold out if Miami continues to lose?

The league is banking on the opposite, as Miami and other teams have even added temporary stands to accommodate the sell outs that are piling up like Messi goals—which he’s scored almost 800 of in his career.

At least for now, it seems foolish to doubt the man Beckham called probably “the greatest player of all time.” It didn’t look like Messi could pull off what he did against Cruz Azul either. Not just scoring a miraculous goal in the waning seconds but inspiring a circus-like level of hype and expectation then raising the bar even higher. He makes it seem possible that somehow, the only way to go is still up.

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