Mon. May 20th, 2024

Miami’s decision to safeguard Messi is justified – football relies on its greatest of all time.

By Sanchez Apr 2, 2024
Miami's decision to safeguard Messi is justified - football relies on its greatest of all time.Miami's decision to safeguard Messi is justified - football relies on its greatest of all time.

“Rest is very important nowadays. As we get older, everything is more difficult,” Lionel Messi said when addressing his recent fitness struggles on the ‘Big Time’ podcast. The Inter Miami superstar has always been refreshingly honest, and demonstrated complete control of his emotions again as he was faced with a series of challenging questions in his latest interview, which aired in Saudi Arabia earlier this week.

“I know that as soon as I believe that I can no longer perform, or no longer enjoy the game, or am not able to help my team-mates, then I will stop,” he added. “I am really self-critical; I know when I am good and when I am bad. So for my retirement, it will not matter what age I am. If I feel good, I will keep playing.”

The 36-year-old has made a strong start to the new MLS campaign, with four goal contributions in his first three appearances, but niggling injuries have disrupted his rhythm. That has been the case throughout Messi’s first eight months at DRV PNK Stadium, with fans from all over the world going to great lengths to buy tickets for Miami games, only to be left disappointed.

Messi is the biggest draw in soccer, and Miami are under enormous pressure to make sure he plays as much as possible, but they have so far prioritised his long-term health over financial gain. It is absolutely vital that does not change, not only for the sake of MLS’ continued growth, but for the game as a whole.

Unrealistic expectations

Inter Miami sold out tickets for every single one of their home and away games for the 2024 MLS season as early as November, despite the fact prices for seats in certain areas of their stadium were doubled from the previous campaign. According to The Athletic, the club is now worth over $1 billion, with its value having skyrocketed by $400 million since Messi’s arrival last summer, and his ground-breaking revenue share deal with Apple has sparked a massive increase in MLS viewers.

Messi-mania has gripped the United States as superstars from other sports such as LeBron James and Novak Djokovic have turned up to see the diminutive magician in action, along with globally-recognised celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Kim Kardashian, Halle Berry, Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian. It’s an unprecedented level of fanfare, and although Messi has largely been able to give supporters their money’s worth, many of them still have unrealistic expectations.

In addition to their MLS commitments, Miami will defend their 2023 Leagues Cup title, which was won mainly because of Messi’s brilliance, and they also have to compete in the US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions Cup. Tata Martino’s side are, of course, bidding to win the lot, but will grab any opportunity to rest Messi so that he is available in the most important games, regardless of any potential backlash.

Avoiding ‘serious risks’

Miami embarked on a highly anticipated four-game tour of Asia spanning across January and February, with Messi the star attraction, but the attempt to expand their empire quickly turned into a PR disaster as he was laid low with a muscle injury. Messi featured in their first two games in the Middle East against Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, albeit only coming on for the final seven minutes in the second contest, but didn’t even come off the bench in a subsequent friendly clash with a Hong Kong All-Star team, which caused uproar.

David Beckham, who co-owns Miami and played a key role in luring Messi to the U.S., attempted to appease the capacity crowd of 40,000 after his team’s 4-1 win by thanking them for their hospitality, only to see his voice drowned out by boos, and the Hong Kong government later called for an explanation from organisers as to why Messi did not play.

Martino gave his own version when facing the media, with Luis Suarez having also sat out the game through injury. “This decision was made together with the medical staff. We ran a lot of risk of aggravating their injuries and that’s why they couldn’t be in the game,” he said. “We apologize, but I hope you can understand that, if we had a chance to get them to play for a while, we would have done it. But we were taking serious risks and that is why, together with the medical staff, we made this decision.”

Messi did come on for the final 30 minutes of Miami’s final game of the tour against Vissel Kobe, but that only served to stir up more controversy. Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times claimed his cameo in Tokyo “magnified doubts and suspicions on the integrity of Inter Miami and Messi himself” as organisers announced a 50 percent refunds to fans who had attended the match.

It was farcical, and Martino’s apology should have been more than enough. Miami protected their prized asset instead of potentially jeopardising his chances of being ready for the start of the MLS season, and that kind of loyalty could go a long way towards prolonging his illustrious career.

Miami’s quarterback

Miami’s cautious approach paid off, as Messi initially produced a series of scintillating performances to lift Martino’s side to the top of the Eastern Conference. He has, however, missed their last four MLS games due to his persistent muscle problems. The former Barcelona forward also had to pull out of Argentina’s March friendlies against El Salvador and Costa Rica, with Martino insisting before confirmation of that news: “Messi’s injury must be dealt with week by week, and we will evaluate it. What is clear is that there is a goal with him, which is to play in the CONCACAF quarterfinals.”

Miami will face Monterrey in the first leg of their Champions Cup quarter-final on Wednesday, and all being well, Messi will be back in the starting lineup. As Martino touched on, this is a learning experience for the club and the player himself, who has historically been able to avoid any major injury setbacks.

One of the main reasons Messi was able to win so many trophies and Ballons d’Or at Barcelona was because of how carefully he looked after his body. He’s also cleverly been able to adapt his game over the years, going from dynamic winger to false nine in the earlier stages of his career, before becoming more of a wide playmaker in his early 30s and then eventually embracing a quarterback-type role.

Much has been made of how much Messi walks in matches since his transition into that final phase, but its merely a tactic to conserve energy, so that that he can explode into life an the opportune moments and make a decisive impact in the final third. And even now, there is no other player in world football more exciting to watch in full flow.

Perfect balance

“This is what I was looking for when we made the decision with my family: to enjoy it once more, as I’ve done my whole career, after two difficult years, the truth is we had it rough [at Paris Saint-Germain],” Messi said in an interview with ESPN in August. “But as luck would have it, we’re in a place where we’re happy not just because of the results on the pitch, but because of the everyday life with my wife, my kids, our lifestyle and the way we spend our time. Truth is, we’re enjoying this moment very much.”

Much has been made of Messi’s underwhelming two-year spell at PSG, and this was not the first time has been outspoken about his struggles in the French capital, but it certainly can’t be classed as a complete failure. Messi got his hands on back-to-back Ligue 1 titles and racked up 32 goals and 27 assists in 75 appearances, despite never properly settling at Parc des Princes, and also led Argentina to their third World Cup.

He settled the eternal GOAT debate at Qatar 2022, effectively sealing his eighth Ballon d’Or in the process, and had nothing left to achieve in European football by the end of his second season at PSG. Messi did the right thing by heading stateside, where he now has the ideal mix between soccer and family life, and the freedom to play at his own pace in a league that is incredibly fortunate to have him.

There is absolutely no doubt Messi could still be playing at the highest level in Europe. A Barcelona homecoming was on the table before his switch to MLS, while Champions League finalists Manchester City and Inter were also mooted as possible destinations, but achieving longevity and peace of mind were his main goals.

Miami tied Messi to a two-and-a-half year contract with the option of the extra year, which could see him remain in Florida until the end of 2026, after the Canada, Mexico and the United States host the World Cup. After Qatar, Messi hinted he was close to retirement from international football, but joining Miami has changed everything, and it’s entirely possible he could yet have one final swansong on the global stage.

Last great maverick

Messi will certainly be front and center when Argentina defend their Copa America crown in the U.S. this summer, and no one would be surprised if he carries Lionel Scaloni’s men all the way to a third successive major trophy. As the game continues to become more of a tactical affair and managers get bogged down in picking the most efficient formations while demanding that even their most talented players stick to very specific roles, true mavericks in the mould of Messi are becoming rarer and rarer.

Football still needs Messi for that reason. The next generation should aspire to express themselves freely and stand out from the crowd, as he has done for the best part of 20 years, instead of obsessing about the intricacies of the game that seem to constantly be increasing.

Messi makes everything on the pitch look simple, and every time he plays, there will be at least one moment when he does something to make your jaw drop. It’s exhilarating to behold, and his genius must be cherished for as long as possible.

He doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone at this stage, but still manages to illicit that same special emotional response, because he remains a master of his craft. And only when Messi finally stops playing and there is no one there to take his place will the full scope of his inimitable talent truly hit home.

The bigger picture

Messi has always been a serial winner, too, a man who has so often taken games by the scruff of the neck when his team are in dire straits. Moving to MLS hasn’t changed that.

“The number ones maintain throughout their entire career the way they compete and the desire to win, regardless of where they play,” Martino said earlier this month. “That is a big trait of his. Today I still see it in the same way as the first time in Barcelona, the desire to go for everything that falls on his path.”

Inter Miami is not the place Messi has chosen to wind down towards retirement. He wants to add another trophy-laden chapter to his story, and enhance his legacy by single-handedly elevating the profile of America’s flagship competition to never-before-seen heights.

But most of all, he just wants to enjoy playing football, and watching a happy Messi do what he does best is still the most beautiful sight in football. Miami are doing everything in their power to create the perfect environment for him to do exactly that, and should be commended for their efforts.

Beckham and Co are working to preserve the game’s most valuable asset, and it doesn’t matter if that involves wrapping him in cotton wool from time to time. There will never be another Messi, and we should all just be grateful that he is at a club that fully understands just how special he is.

By Sanchez

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