The greatest footballer of our time looked haggard as he sat on the stage of a hotel conference room in Tokyo in early February and pushed himself onto a bar stool. Lionel Messi was wearing a pink training jacket from his club Inter Miami, holding a microphone in his right hand and resting his left hand on his thigh. In front of him were dozens of reporters, photographers, cameramen and lots of spotlights. Messi narrowed his eyes.

The otherwise media-shy Argentine gave an unusually detailed account of how he had been plagued by pain in his inner thigh since the start of the test match tour, which lasted several weeks. How this had prevented him from playing in Hong Kong. And then, almost casually, he said: "I'm also a bit tired from the tour and I'm looking forward to the last game before I go home."

Beckham's plan

Messi's words between the lines told a lot about the hardships of the road trip. About the South Florida club's mission to make maximum profit from the world's most famous footballer and at the same time drum up publicity for the American soccer league MLS, which is struggling for prestige. Words that also provided an idea of ​​where the project could fail.

Inter Miami, co-founded by soccer icon David Beckham at the beginning of 2018, is currently the most dazzling MLS club. The Englishman wants to turn it into the league's global flagship and soccer into a major attraction in the United States, where American football, basketball and baseball have dominated to date. The timing seems perfect. In two years' time, the World Cup will take place in Beckham's second home. Between now and then, though, the club needs to find success.

In addition to Messi, former Barcelona greats are expected to help. In January, the club introduced the Uruguayan and Messi buddy Luis Suárez, one of the best strikers of his generation. Last year, Inter Miami signed midfield strategist Sergio Busquets, with whom Messi won eight Spanish championships at Barcelona. A little later, left-back Jordi Alba joined the team.

The quartet has been on a world tour with Miami since mid-January, with test matches in Central America, the US, Saudi Arabia, China and Japan. A tour that ended up running the gauntlet even before Miami plays its first game of the season on Thursday.

The team recently played four games in three time zones. They were supposed to be soccer festivals, including one against Cristiano Ronaldo's club Al-Nassr. The arena in Riyadh was full, but Ronaldo was missing because of an injury and Messi only played for a few minutes. The clash between the world's top footballers turned out to be a non-event – ​​Miami were disgraced 0:6 and the fans mocked them. "Miami sold its soul for this tour," an American sports reporter wrote on X.

Some 48 hours later in Hong Kong, around 40,000 fans came to watch Messi jog in public training, but Messi and Suárez only watched the later kick-off against a local team, which made waves like a state affair.

The city government and fans were furious, booing Inter Miami and even David Beckham, who is a hero in Asia, in the stadium. Fans demanded their money back; the organizer came under pressure and announced that it would later refund half the price of the tickets, which cost up to $640. The

South China Morning Post

described Messi's absence as "the biggest disappointment of all time."

Frustrated fans in Hong Kong demand their money back: An injury prevented Lionel Messi from participating in the match.


Louise Delmotte / AP

Inter Miami were forced to issue a written apology. In it, the club claimed that they had wanted to get Messi fit for the game "right up to the last moment." But the doctors had deemed it too risky to play, saying that Injuries were "unfortunately part of this beautiful game."

But it seems that the Argentinian has no right to be injured.

Messi is now 36 years old. The older he gets, the more grotesque the hype surrounding him becomes. Most fans don't care whether his team wins or not. The main thing is that they can see him again, take a photo and maybe get his autograph. Now, the club is being forced to come to the realization that the price may have been too high to present the megastar to the world in order to push its own brand.

Miami won only one of six test matches. The club experienced a PR disaster in China and lost player after player the longer the tour lasted. Young talent Facundo Farías, 21, scores his anterior cruciate ligament; young star Benjamin Cremaschi, 18, suffered a hernia; Suárez, 37, struggled with inflammation in his knee. Busquets, 35, injured his ankle.

Observers are already wondering how the team led by this aging star ensemble is supposed to get through 34 league games and three cup competitions. A caricature of an emaciated cow named Messi being milked by the farmer "MLS" has recently been circulating among fans.

The man who is the almost stoic ringmaster of the Messi circus and the immense expectations is Gerardo Martino. The Argentinian coach, 61, who everyone just calls "Tata," has already coached Messi with the national team and in Barcelona, ​​in Spain, together with Busquets and Alba. Like Messi, he comes from Rosario and is considered to be a soccer ace and hard worker.

Late in the evening before the match against Ronaldo's Al-Nassr, Martino walks through the team hotel in Riyadh in his training suit. A huge crescent moon shines in the sky outside, "buenas noches," Martino, still in good spirits, says by way of greeting. When asked why things are not going well for his team so far, he answers a little defiantly. "The aim is not to win test matches, but season matches," he says, adding that the team grows with every defeat.

To Exhausted Messi, Disappointed Fans

With a project like Inter Miami, he had already emphasized before the start of the tour, you have to think about sports and business at the same time, meaning you have to manage the playing time of the top players and keep fans and organizers happy. A balancing act. Nevertheless, Martino doesn't seem too worried. Unlike last season, "where we were barely able to compensate for Leo's absence," he says, the squad is now better staffed.

Martino first saw Messi fire his team to victory against Mexican first division side Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup. With a spectacular free-kick goal in the 94th minute, watched by stars such as basketball player LeBron James and tennis player Serena Williams. Miami went on to remain unbeaten in 11 games, win the Leagues Cup, and nurture the team's supporters and club management's hope for more.

But by the autumn, Messi was exhausted from traveling the country and playing so many games. He injured his thigh. He missed most of the remaining league games and Miami missed the playoffs. That left fans disappointed.

Now, after the botched world tour, the team is back.

"It's not a good idea to prepare for the season on the road," says Ed Serrano, 53, a man with a balding head and square-shaped glasses. Serrano is co-founder of the Inter-Miami fan club Southern Legion. In mid-February, he is sitting on the balcony of his apartment in the suburbs of Miami. Serrano has watched all the test matches online, getting up at three in the morning to do so. "It was awful to watch sometimes," he says. "We looked pretty rusty."

Without Serrano, Inter Miami probably wouldn't exist. For almost 20 years, he and some of his colleagues tried to establish a successor to the failed MLS club Miami Fusion. They looked for investors, wrote emails to league boss Don Garber and almost begged him to bring soccer back to South Florida. But the region was considered a failed market, says Serrano. "We had almost given up. And then Beckham came along."

As part of his contract with LA Galaxy in 2007, David Beckham had secured the right to acquire parts of a new MLS club for 25 million dollars after his professional career. Serrano and his colleagues helped bring him together with future club co-owner Jorge Mas.

In January 2018, Serrano, Beckham and Mas toasted the founding of Inter Miami in an Irish pub. "Becks drank Guinness, I drank a Stella," recalls Serrano, showing a photo of the two of them on his smartphone. In it, Beckham can be seen laughing. "He was our luck."

When rumors circulated a year ago that Messi would come to Miami, Serrano says he couldn't believe it. The MLS would be a step backwards for Messi, he thought. "But then he was suddenly there," he says. "I was on cloud nine."

The Best Paid MLS Player

It sounds like a modern-day fairytale that the eight-time world footballer has opted for a club that has been notoriously bad in the past. A club that has languished in mediocrity for years. A club whose home games were attended by fewer fans than any other team in the MLS, a league that has so far mainly attracted footballers who were past their prime. Even stars like Pelé or Beckham were unable to make the US league popular.

Until the American construction company and Inter Miami owner Jorge Mas decided to bring Messi to Florida. Together with his brother José and co-owner Beckham, the billionaire spent years courting the Argentine's services. Quietly, patiently, and with great tact, as they say.

Mas visited Messi's father again and again, meeting him at the World Cup in Qatar to make the deal with Miami palatable to him. "I told him: 'You have the chance to change the sport in the biggest market in the world,'" Mas once told


magazine. A vision that ultimately convinced father and son. Plus the prospect of a life at the gateway to Latin America.

Almost 70 percent of the inhabitants of Miami and the surrounding area are Latino, and a third of all Argentinians in the US live there. The family in Rosario is only a nine-hour flight away. For Messi and his wife, these are said to have been key arguments for turning down an offer of several hundred million dollars a year from a Saudi Arabian club. Although not the only ones.

The Argentine earns between $50 and $60 million per season from Inter Miami, making him the best-paid professional in the MLS. This includes a basic salary of $20.4 million, bonus payments and club shares once he stops playing soccer. Fees from advertising deals, including with Adidas and Apple, are also included.

Apple in general. The technology company was a latecomer among streaming services. Then the company bought the MLS broadcasting rights for ten years for 2.5 billion dollars. Messi also earns money on every MLS subscription on Apple TV+ that is sold outside of the US

Apple CEO Tim Cook announced in the summer: "We couldn't be happier with the MLS partnership." This is just the beginning. After a multi-part documentary about Messi's first season in the US, the next tribute is set to follow soon. The subject this time: Messi's World Cup triumph.

Ever since the star was unveiled as "America's No. 10" with great fanfare last July, all hell has broken loose in Miami. Fans are painting their houses pink, artists are painting outsize versions of Messi's likeness on the walls of buildings. "This is our moment to change soccer in this country," Mas had told the 20,000 spectators at Messi's presentation at the stadium in Fort Lauderdale, where the club is currently playing its home games until the new venue in Miami is ready.

Before Messi's arrival, Inter Miami had 1 million followers on Instagram. Today, there are around 16 million, and only a few US sports teams have more. They had to install 3,000 extra seats in the stadium because ticket sales exploded. Messi's jersey quickly became the best-selling in the league.

The club is expecting revenues of $200 million this year, a multiple of what they would have earned without the Argentine. "There is a before and an after for Miami and the league," said Miami's managing director.

Even when he is injured, Messi ensures sold-out crowds throughout the league; in 2023, the MLS set a record for attendance thanks in part to the superstar. Host teams do the business of the year on matchdays against Miami, coaches mark the match on their calendars and opponents are eager to face the Barça quartet on the pitch. Professionals report that better soccer has been played since Miami shook up the league.

"Messi is a rocket for the league," says MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche. You have to capitalize on that. The league is already thinking about moving kick-off times from the evening to earlier in the day "to attract European fans to the screen." The growth prospects for US soccer have never been greater - now that the country is hosting the Copa América, the Club World Cup, the World Cup and the Olympics in the coming years.

But what if the rocket stops flying? How lasting can the influence of a man be to a league that is not even ranked among the top ten internationally?

"The Messi effect won't last forever," says Alexi Lalas, 53, a legendary defender for the US team, later a manager at LA Galaxy and now a soccer commentator. "The USA doesn't lack soccer fans, it lacks MLS fans."

To change this, the team owners would have to spend money and buy in more top foreign players. So far, though, salary caps have made this impossible.

"You can't survive on the international market like that," says Lalas. He fears that the clubs will miss this historic opportunity. "There won't be another one any time soon."

In Miami, they are not yet thinking about the post-Messi era. The club is too busy gnawing away at the hype surrounding the superstar. At the first public training session of the new season at the end of January, dozens of journalists have to pass through metal detectors and have their bags frisked. The reporters are allowed to watch the team for 15 minutes, then it's over. Black gauze around the fences of the training pitch blocks the view inwards; Messi's bodyguard follows his client at every turn.

Outside, fans line the entrance to the club grounds, waving Argentinian flags and honking their horns at every car that drives out. They hope that Messi is sitting in one of them and will give them his autograph. Recently, one lucky man managed to do just that, spotting his idol in the car next to him at the traffic lights and throwing him a jersey through the open window. The video of the scene immediately went viral.

Enlarge image

Messi is even featured in advertisements for burgers.

Photo: Matthias Fiedler / DER SPIEGEL

"There's a lot of pressure to succeed here," says Julian Gressel, 30, who moved to Miami from the current champion Columbus Crew at the beginning of the year. Gressel has just come out of the gym, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a towel.

"It's damn humid here," he says.

The midfielder, who played for Greuther Fürth in Germany as a youth player and later married an American, has spent his entire professional career in the MLS. In 2018, he won the championship under Miami's current coach Martino and was later called up to the US national team. At Miami, he's supposed to be the link between stars and young players. Gressel says: "Of course, I also came here because of Messi."

The expectations of the team are high, says Gressel. "It's probably normal when you have the best player in the world in the squad." He is currently learning Spanish, otherwise an assistant coach translates head coach Martino's instructions into English. He says Messi is a nice guy who he can talk to normally. Gressel says he sometimes has to force himself not to stare at his teammate the whole time during training. "He does things with the ball that make me think, wow, another level."

It's the fans who face the brunt of the downside of Messi mania. Those wanting to see the man and his artistry with the ball now have to pay astronomical ticket prices, especially for away games and on the scalper market.

The club has almost doubled the price of season tickets from this season. The cheapest now costs $867 and is therefore more expensive than most comparable seats in the English Premier League, the best soccer league in the world, even though Miami boss Mas had promised to keep prices affordable "for the hard-working men and women" in Miami.

Club founder Serrano reports that he knows many people who have had to cancel their season tickets. He's sitting with his granddaughter in the Hard Rock Café in the south of Fort Lauderdale, where they have both ordered a Messi burger. At the entrance to the restaurant, the soccer player in a chef's jacket is advertising a "Chicken Sandwich."

Serrano says he works as a parcel driver but has always had two season tickets for himself and his wife. Now, he can only afford one, because away games have become unaffordable. "That's bitter," he says. He has spent half his life fighting for this club and now even wears pink, although he never liked the color.

Serrano is annoyed by fans who only come to the stadium for Messi. They leave when he's not playing. "They take the seats away from those who want to support the whole team," he says.

The connection to the team is no longer as tight as it was before Messi's arrival, when the professionals still walked from the training ground over to the stadium and you could high-five them. "Today, they travel by bus," says Serrano.

Miami owner Mas once promised each of the big fan clubs several thousand dollars as thanks for their work, but none of it ever arrived.

Serrano will, of course, still go to the season opener on Thursday, at home against Real Salt Lake. He has even taken extra time off work for the match. He'll be sitting in his regular seat, section 115, row 34, seat 11, right on time for the 2 pm kick-off. The match is the only one of the day. Quite deliberately, as the league says.

All eyes should be on Miami. On Messi.