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MIAMI – When Lionel Messi finally added the title of “World Cup champion” to his career resume last December, it seemed there was not much to expect. There is no other box to check. There is nothing left to gain after almost two decades at the most elite of all levels of football.
“He doesn’t carry such a big bag anymore,” former Argentina coach Tata Martino said on Thursday. He symbolically referred to the burden that Messi felt until he managed to secure football’s ultimate international prize. “He’s in good time.”
But as Messi prepares to embark on the final – and possibly final – chapter of his playing time, there is some pressure and anticipation. An unspoken promise came when he agreed to join Inter Miami and compete in Major League Soccer, relatively unknown to him at least. Taking American football to a whole new level.
People want to see him, they’re interested in him, and the games in which he appears take on a whole new meaning, both in MLS and in the League Cup tournaments (Mexico’s MLS and Liga MX teams are involved). The best player of his generation is here and the goalposts have moved.
But the best way for Messi to become an American football evangelist is relatively simple: focus on football. Highlight evangelism.
Football in the United States has grown to such a level that it no longer needs a 36-year-old player for a full celebrity card, talk show rounds, promotional appearances and endless media interviews.
It needs Messi to play, shine and win.
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Martino, who was appointed Inter Miami’s new coach on June 28, said, “We have a plan.” “If we have good results then the plan will work better.”
that’s an understatement. American football is much more than a gimmick. MLS’s early days in the late 1990s were momentous, but the league was probably trying too hard to please what American audiences wanted.
There was an accidental shootout from the 35-yard line to settle the contest. Some of the uniforms could be politely described as gaudy. Many of the imports that took place had definitely crossed their limit.
As American football grew, so did the audience. What you see in MLS now is in line with what you would expect in a European or South American game. Wages have increased, as well as the crowd has also increased.
That said, such development brings with it various realities. Even when David Beckham arrived 15 years ago, there was a huge publicity element to his job description. Not so with Messi.
A press conference was held on Thursday ahead of Messi’s anticipated debut against Cruz Azul in the League Cup (Friday at 7 p.m. ET). Martino spoke with Sergio Busquets, the Spanish international who played alongside Messi at Barcelona.
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Messi was not present. get used to. He won’t say much before the game, after the game or in the middle of the game.
But what could have been a bit of a hassle for the gathered journalists actually means little in the grand scheme of things.
Messi hasn’t liked talking to the press from the start, and the simple fact is that he can’t say anything that can overcome the impact of a spectacular goal, a jump in Inter Miami’s fortunes and perhaps an MLS Cup title in the next few years. It is with his feet and his finesse, not his mouth and his personality, that Messi can raise the profile of the league he is a member of. It will happen with his performance.
Competitiveness is at the core of everything the 36-year-old does. He’s won everything football has to offer, and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t want to win more.
The League’s Cup is a chance for Inter Miami to breathe some life into a disappointing season that saw the team finish bottom of MLS’s Eastern Conference. Cruz Azul, who are struggling in Liga MX itself, knows that the main reason people watch Friday’s game is to see Messi, not him.
Nevertheless, Cruz Azul coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti felt Messi’s spirit and released his prediction for what will happen next.
“He loves football,” Ferretti told reporters. “Messi loves it. If he was already tired of it, he would not have come here. He was here to promote the game, yes. But he cannot ruin all his earlier experiences by coming here. He is here because he still has a passion for football.”
And the way passion works for Messi is not by describing it, but by doing it.
All American sports have a showbiz element, but Messi is a pure sporting beast. If it wants to be the kind of game changer many are hoping for, it will dominate sports, not be talked about.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for Fox Sports and author of the Fox Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @mrrogersfox And Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter,
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