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.