IT HAS BECOME commonplace over the last few weeks to wake up, scroll through your Instagram feed and see a post about Lionel Messi’s latest goal for Inter-Miami in the MLS (Major League Soccer). If you hadn’t heard, Messi has scored 10 goals in his first 7 games and last week led the team to the Leagues Cup.
At this point, many armchair analysts, myself included, simply nod and shrug our shoulders. What did anyone expect? Arguably football’s GOAT, certainly now the greatest player of the modern era after last year’s legacy-defining World Cup triumph, Messi has become a byword for excellence that we haven’t witnessed since Usain Bolt was streaking down the track or Michael Jordan was playing in Chicago.
Messi’s great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo has been almost as prolific in his stint with Al-Nassr FC in the Saudi Pro League, scoring scoring 6 goals in seven games this season, on top of the 14 in 16 games he scored last season. Yet for some reason that hasn’t had the same semi-viral impact Messi’s relentless MLS goal onslaught has. This could be because the Saudi league has a remote, other-worldly quality about it. The MLS, despite Ronaldo’s attempts to shit-can it, has a razzle-dazzle and vibrancy the Pro League doesn’t. The presence of celebs such as LeBron James, Kim Kardashian, Serena Williams and David Beckham on the sidelines of Messi’s first game didn’t hurt, nor does the fact that Messi’s goal barrage is great content for both the traditional US sports media, who in the dog days of the summer don’t have the NFL or NBA to occupy them, and the denizens of social media who are delighted by the pink-shirted avatar’s continued content storm.
I would argue that given Messi’s profile, even if he wasn’t regularly finding the back of the net, content creators and aggregators would still be flooding feeds with Messi content, be it wistful looks to the stands and captions like ‘Does Messi miss PSG?’ Or Messi joking with teammates: ‘Messi has a laugh with teammates’—yes digital creators need to work on their captions.
Happily, they are not having to resort to this kind of desperate content coalmining because Messi is giving them, and us, more goals than they, we, know what to do with. Despite what I said earlier, I only started shrugging my shoulders at all these goals after the fifth or sixth one. Prior to that, I had thought that Messi’s star-studded debut at the DRV PNK Stadium back on July 22, was likely his MLS moment and after that he would cease to be a news or social story, mainly because I wasn’t sure if the MLS and the American public really had an appetite to sustain his reign at the top of search engines.
Sure, I had read about the way Pele lit up the league for the New York Cosmos in the ’70s and how David Beckham made the LA Galaxy box-office for a little while there in the late aughts. But I naively predicted that this stint would mark a slow decline and retreat from the spotlight for a man who’s scored over 800 career goals in a two-decade career.
Now? Now I’m wondering where Messi might play next after his stint with Inter-Miami winds up. Could he make another World Cup? Is he, like Brady, Lebron, Federer and Djokovic, enjoying a sports medicine-defying late prime in which old markers of physical decline, such as pulled hammies, strained groins and arthritic knees that see the athlete wither before our eyes, no longer apply? Possibly. But there is another alternative to this narrative: I’m getting carried away.
Messi’s first Inter Miami goal was viewed an astonishing 200m times. His second against Atlanta United only a few days later, reached a similar tally. But you if you turn down the volume of the GOAT-gushing commentary for a moment, you do have to wonder how a 36-year-old, who’s been playing football since he was a teenager, is able to roam around the field and puncture defences with the ease that Messi is doing right now.
That might be because MLS defences are of the turnstile, Kiwi-through-Aussie customs variety. This hasn’t escaped the notice of some online trolls (most likely Ronaldo worshippers), who have proceeded to pour scorn on the acres of space Messi is enjoying on American pitches. In the goal against Atlanta, as Graham Ruthven writing in The Guardian, points out, Messi receives the ball from teammate Sergio Busquets with more space than you would afford a man carrying a pre-vaccination Covid variant.
Defence hasn’t traditionally been the MLS’s strong point. In a brand-building league goals are always going to be the focus. As Ruthven writes, of the 80 Designated Players currently playing in the league, only four (Walker Zimmerman, Andreas Maxso, Thiago Martins, Teenage Hadebe) are defenders. Big money is spilled on midfielders and strikers, while defences are cobbled together with “spare change”. Chuck a goal-scoring savant like Messi into this mix and you could argue it’s like putting a post-pubescent older brother into a game of primary schoolers, or Logan Paul in a ring with Floyd Mayweather.
Messi, who used to wear the countenance of a harried accountant, has certainly been smiling a little more of late. Maybe last year’s World Cup victory chased any remaining spectres of footballing anxiety from his mind. Perhaps it’s Miami’s pink uniform and the jubilance and exuberance it imparts in him—you can scoff but studies have found colour can impact athletic performance, particularly red; MLS defenders should be thankful Messi isn’t donning a crimson strip. Perhaps it’s having his kids with him at games and on the pitch afterwards. That might explain his recent spate of Marvel superhero-inspired goal celebrations: Thor, Black Panther, Spider-Man, have all got a run to the delight of the content farmers. Or maybe Messi’s smiling because he knows better than anyone: it shouldn’t be this easy.