Miami advice: Don’t sign Messi

IN CASE you didn’t know it, let’s just confirm that Lionel Messi is bigger than French champions Paris Saint-Germain. He’s also substantially bigger than Al-Hilal in the Saudi Pension Fund League and he’s richer than almost every club in the world. He’s certainly more prominent than Inter Miami of America’s Major League Soccer. 

Should Inter Miami succeed in luring Messi to the US, it would certainly be good for brand Beckham, but would it actually add to the credibility of MLS? The marketing guys would certainly pitch it as a sign of the league’s power, but they would be kidding themselves because the attraction wouldn’t be the league, the club or the chance to rub shoulders with Leytonstone’s biggest export. It would be, purely and simply, about money, which we know is a key element in any relationship with someone like Messi. Signing a 35 year-old who could, if we’re honest be sidelined at any moment, is a risky business, particularly if you give him a three-year deal. If he was 25 or even 30, it would be impressive, but he’s not and it isn’t really.

Inter Miami’s owners are keen to make their club into a credible force, but they made a big mistake in hiring Beckham buddy Phil Neville. This was the sort of appointment that a lower league club would make, the misguided belief that a successful playing career equates to an equally glittering managerial career. Neville’s record as coach of England’s women team was unimpressive – a win rate of 54.29% for a side that is ranked among the top teams in their field. His win rate at Inter Miami was just 38.89% as they sunk to the bottom. Beckham claimed it was a tough decision to sack him – doesn’t every club say that? – but if his original appointment wasn’t a case of “jobs for the boys”, why was it so daunting?

Messi at PSG didn’t work because of who he is and what the club represents. It’s a squad full of big money signings that is rarely tested on a weekly basis. They underperform when the competition gets harder and because of their resources, they are able to sign any ego they like. Messi was upstaged by Mbappé to a certain degree and, as we saw when he decided to jet off to Saudi, Messi does what he pleases. If a club is trying to generate a team ethic, this simply doesn’t work.

Imagine someone like Messi rolling up at Inter Miami with a loop-hole contract that finds a way to work round the MLS salary cap and includes corporate tie-ins with major brands. While his team-mates might say that playing with a legend – isn’t everyone a legend these days? – is the greatest thrill of their careers, it would be in the knowledge that his contract had blown open the MLS ethos of democracy and realistic wage bills for the roster.

It would, on a broader scale, damage the image of MLS and portray it, to some extent, as a resting ground for ageing stars. Messi’s arrival might trigger a wave of yesterday’s men arriving in the US just as they did in the 1970s in the old NASL days. Admittedly, Messi is an extraordinary talent, but there is a danger that US football might repeat its mistakes of the past, at a time when MLS is growing in stature, quality and economic power. But just how many players are there that have genuine cachet in their late 30s?

Of course, Messi may decide to move to Saudi Arabia and renew his rivalry with that other fantastic beast, Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7 has been trying to convince the world that Saudi Arabia could become a top five league in the coming years, but few are buying into that. And if all else fails, he could go “home” to Barcelona, but the club’s financial problems and their team-building plans may not accommodate him. The Catalans are, for all their current issues, a bigger football entity than Messi.

There is another side to the entry of Saudi Arabia into the heritage player market. If the league suddenly becomes a place where veterans go to squeeze the last drops of juice out of their careers, isn’t it just feeding the current trend of rich oil-states buying up football’s prized assets? As for clubs such as Inter Miami, hiring Messi would make headlines for a while, but it would do very little for the long term development of the club. Think longer term, guys. 

Two down, one to go: Manchester City on the brink of history

THE OUTCOME was what most people predicted; Manchester City had just a little too much for their local rivals, while United ended a season of progress in Erik ten Hag’s first with the club. City have very little time to celebrate, they play the third leg of their bid for the treble, the UEFA Champions League, in a week’s time, a game they will start as favourites.

In the end, the 90 minutes at Wembley was a little tougher than their 12-second opener suggested it might be. Ílkay Gündogan’s majestic volley caught out thousands of people settling into their seats and for one moment, sent a shiver down the spines of United’s fans. Was a thorough trouncing on the cards?

There has been a certain inevitability about City’s entire season, even when they were way behind youthful Arsenal. They calmly overtook the Gunners and easily marched to the FA Cup final by beating Chelsea (4-0), Arsenal (1-0), Bristol City (3-0), Burnley (6-0) and Sheffield United (3-0). Added to that, they reached the Champions League final by overcoming, among others, the Europa League winners, the top three clubs in Germany and, in the semi-finals, holders Real Madrid. Their path to Istanbul has not been a gentle stroll, it has been a severe test against some of Europe’s most accomplished clubs.

Although the unpredictability of a local derby at Wembley enhanced United’s chances of pulling off a shock result, in truth City always looked as though they were on their way to victory. The scoreline looked narrow, but the penalty that levelled that shock opener demonstrated everything that is wrong about the application of VAR. Little do referees know it, but this age of automated decision-making is triggering the beginning of the end for the officials. When judgement and discretion are replaced by technical accuracy, there will be no need for anything other than high-end artificial intelligence. Jack Grealish jumped for the ball and it was perfectly natural that his arms should be outstretched to provide some sort of balance as gravity brought him back down to earth. Yes, the ball grazed his hand, but was it really a penalty?

The goal made a game of it for United, for if City had not been pegged back, the final might have been embarrassingly one-sided. As it turned out, United had as many shots as City and restricted Pep Guardiola’s team to 60% possession, a relatively low figure for them. The second City goal, again by Gündogan, should have been saved by David De Gea, whose time at United may be coming to an end. Not only was the shot stoppable, but the German international was given far too much space. 

City’s superiority in domestic football is alarmingly clear; United finished third in the Premier League and won the EFL Cup, but they were 14 points behind their neighbours. In other words, aside from Arsenal, Manchester United represent the best the opposition has to offer but the gulf between City and United is certainly more than the cost of the starting line-ups. City’s spent around £ 100 million more than their United counterparts. United have had a good season, but they are some way behind and their best side includes no less than five players over 30 years of age. That said, City had four who won’t see their 20s again.

City’s critics will point to the club’s ownership as the catalyst for a growing competitive advantage, and they would not be wrong, but they have undoubtedly spent their money well, installing a very robust and innovative business model and employing top line professionals, including Guardiola, the most intelligent coach in the game. 

United are in a state of limbo at the moment, but when they are finally sold, they may just find themselves in the precisely the same category as City – owned by a middle eastern oil state with vast amounts of cash. On the other hand, the new regime may be a US sports team owner with more than one eye on the bottom line. United’s future is very much in the balance at the moment, although for the first time in a decade, there seems to be something of a plan. 

As for City, they have one game remaining to become the 10th team in Europe to win the treble of domestic league and cup and Champions League. The first to achieve this remarkable feat was Celtic in 1967, the most recent Bayern Munich in 2020. The club they face, Inter, won all three prizes in 2010 under José Mourinho. Manchester United are the only English club so far to pull it off, in 1999. Guardiola led Barcelona to the treble in 2009, he would be the first manager to do it twice. Who would bet against this all-conquering City team?