FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi was at a youth soccer tournament in southwest Florida this weekend, watching his son play. He was trying to be just a normal soccer dad. Of course, there is no such thing as normal when talking about the best player in the world.
Everyone gets mesmerized by his presence.
Even, as it turns out, his Inter Miami teammates.
Consider DeAndre Yedlin, for example. Yedlin is a highly decorated, highly accomplished player with worldwide experience and acclaim. He has played in the Premier League and in two World Cups for the U.S. and has been a Major League Soccer All-Star. He was the captain for Inter Miami to start this season. Then Messi joined the club in July, and everything changed in a moment.
“I mean, yeah, I was starstruck,” Yedlin said. “This is a guy that I grew up watching and admiring. So, of course, whenever you come across a great — especially the greatest to ever do it — I think it’s normal to get a bit starstruck. I really was like: ‘Wow, that is Messi. He’s here.’ But when you play with him, get to know him, you realize he’s a very normal guy, very humble, cares about everybody.”
Messi is humble. He is not normal. That will almost certainly be on full display again Monday in Paris, when the 36-year-old is expected to win the Ballon d’Or — presented to the best player in the world for a given year — for the eighth time, extending his record. Nobody else has won more than five of those trophies.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said earlier this month that his top player, Erling Haaland, and Messi both deserve the trophy.
“I always said that the Ballon d’Or had to be of two sections — one for Messi and one for the others,” said Guardiola, who coached Messi with Barcelona.
It will be Messi’s 14th time finishing in the top three of the balloting, extending another record. He won it while playing for Barcelona, he won it while playing with Paris Saint-Germain and now he’ll likely win it while playing for Inter Miami in what would mark the first instance of an MLS player getting such recognition.
“Playing with him on the pitch and sharing moments together is a joy,” said Jordi Alba, a longtime Messi teammate who joined him with Inter Miami as well.
The first season — first half-season, really — for Messi in Miami was a resounding success in many ways, a failure in one other. The club won its first trophy, with Messi leading the way to the Leagues Cup championship (and even though he was wearing the captain’s armband, in a nod to that humility teammates speak of, he had Yedlin, the previous captain, hoist that trophy). Attendance skyrocketed, Inter Miami’s footprint on soccer’s social media space skyrocketed, viewership on Apple TV was believed to soar and Messi’s No. 10 jersey became the hottest seller in MLS. He’s making somewhere between $50 million and $60 million per season with Inter Miami, and the revenue streams are making that possible. (Season-ticket prices for 2024 are also much higher, to the chagrin of many fans.)
But injuries, wear and tear all took a toll, probably exacerbated by Inter Miami having to play so many matches in Leagues Cup. (“It was very hard for us, playing every three days, with travel, with training,” Messi said.) A leg injury forced Messi to miss much of the late-season team’s MLS slate and the club missed the league playoffs by a wide margin, though in fairness, it was well out of the playoff picture before Messi arrived in July.
They’re already prepping for 2024 now, set to begin training for a pair of early November exhibitions in China. And when the calendar flips to a new year, Inter Miami will be expected to win every trophy it competes for – MLS Cup, Leagues Cup, the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions Cup.
“I’ll enjoy the holidays in Argentina, the first time I’ll have a lot of fun in December, in peace with my people,” Messi told reporters after an Argentina match earlier this month. “And then I will come back again, preseason, start from scratch and prepare for the best possible outcomes as always.”
Everything is different for Inter Miami now. The new stars — Messi, Alba, Sergio Busquets — have arrived, all part of this summer’s midseason splashes and returning for 2024. Another midseason move: landing coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who now gets a full offseason and preseason to set the club up for what awaits in 2024.
“That’s the year when I thought somehow our work would actually start,” Martino said. “Obviously in these four months there are important things that we were playing for, and that were very, very important for the club. But now with a great preseason, a concrete roster, a defined roster, that’s when we have to look at our strengths and plan for a great year.”
Much of Inter Miami’s roster will be back. Rumors are flying that at least one more big name — Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan who played with Messi at Barcelona — will be headed to Inter Miami. And Messi, even after nearly two decades of being in soccer’s brightest spotlight, remains the biggest star.
After winning the World Cup for Argentina in December, he wound up coming to MLS to enjoy the last chapter of his playing career. So far, so good. It was a ride like none other for Inter Miami this season, and the club knows 2024 will be another whirlwind.
“I’ve heard rocket ship, I’ve heard circus, but I think it was just something that was new to North America, to our team, to this league,” Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender said. “It was something that nobody had ever seen before. I mean, it’s a pretty big moment in soccer history and there was so much attention because people didn’t know what was going to happen. But in that unknown, there’s a greatness and possibilities. So, I’m really looking forward to 2024, because we know what can happen.”
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