Where does Messi’s signing stand in American football history?

After years of rumours, maybes and wishful thinking, the time has finally come. Lionel Messi will sign to play in Major League Soccer. The global icon and Argentine World Cup winner joins David Beckham’s Inter Miami CF after leaving Paris Saint-Germain in Ligue 1.

There have been plenty of great – even legendary – football players who have played professionally in the US over the years. Johan Cruijff. George Best. Bobby Moore. Carlo Alberto. Zlatan. Drogba. Pirlo. Baal. The list goes on and there is no shortage of big names who have played in American leagues.

But few, if any, can be compared to Messi. Perhaps only two players can match the historic status of this move. The iconic Pelé, who arrived in New York in 1975 with the Cosmos and made football mainstream in the US. And David Beckham, Messi’s new boss, who signed with LA Galaxy in 2007 and elevated the then-fledgling MLS into a new era.

One signature can change everything

It’s hard to compare these signings apples to apples, as they took place in different eras with different circumstances.

Pelé entered American stadiums and TVs almost like a mythical figure. He was already known as the best football player ever, but something most Americans had never seen. He played his entire career with Santos up to that point, so unless you happened to see a stray World Cup highlight, you’d never seen Pelé.

The hype and energy he injected into the North American Soccer League was immense. The Cosmos, even after retiring in 1977, remained a force and a good fan attraction. And teams in places like Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, San Jose, Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale (Messi’s new home) also had some success. But most of the other teams didn’t, and the league itself wasn’t sustainable. While the NASL and Cosmos didn’t survive, it left behind some old brands – and most importantly, an explosion in youth soccer participation. Pelé changed the game in the US forever.

Beckham came to the American shores at a time when more international soccer was available in the United States. Not only was Beckham a great player but being a tabloid celebrity raised the awareness factor among the general public. Like Pelé’s Cosmos, Beckham’s Galaxy filled stadiums across the country, often moving games to larger venues.

To bring in Beckham, MLS is literally bending its rules. The Designated Player rule, which allowed teams to get around the salary cap to sign a star player, was invented to make the signing. And it has expanded and remains in place today. And his signing had a ripple effect. His contract came with the option to own an expansion team at the then-current price tag of $25 million. Beckham, with main owner Jorge Más, finally exercised this option in 2014 on the franchise that would become Inter Miami CF.

Will the Messi signing match – or eclipse – past watershed moments?

And now Messi arrives on a scene vastly different from not only the 1970s, but also the mid-2000s. MLS now has 30 teams. There are dozens of purpose-built football venues around the country. Not only at the top, but also in a much more robust lower division lineup.

And international football is incredibly easier to watch today than it was in 2007. Pretty much everyone knows who Messi is, and every football fan has seen him play. Be it Barcelona, ​​PSG or Argentina, American sports fans have been thoroughly exposed to the player who rightfully earned a place in the GOAT argument.

So Messi doesn’t arrive as a mysterious riddle or novelty. He is a known quantity. But like Pelé, Beckham and most of the other great players who have signed here, he is in the twilight of his career.

Make no mistake. This is a huge moment in the history of the game in the US. Messi shall sold out stadiums. He shall selling truckloads of sweaters. He will probably attract more viewers to games (at least the ones he plays in) on TV and attract more subscribers to their streaming service, MLS Season Pass. And some MLS season ticket holders are about to make money on StubHub by reselling their tickets for when Messi comes to town.

It will certainly give the league more credibility, or at least interest, on the international stage. Just as Ligue 1 and PSG saw a huge rise in things like social media followers and sponsors, so will MLS and Inter Miami. But chances are it won’t be the massive “football fever” that explodes overnight from next to nothing to a phenomenon like the one we saw in the ’70s. There are already teams that regularly attract 40-50,000 fans. American football is in a better place than it was 20 and 50 years ago. So the effects are likely to be much more nuanced.

It will be interesting to see if the signing of Messi has the lasting impact that Pele and Beckham had. It’s hard to say if this is a bigger event than either of those two historic acquisitions. It feels as it is, but that may be because we live in the moment as it happens.

The agreement is not yet official, so the details are yet to be revealed. What rules may have been bent this time? How will it affect like signing down the line? How long is he actually going to play here? It is quite possible that Messi’s time in the MLS will come to an end before the World Cup takes over the public consciousness in 2026. And that event is probably a much bigger deal in the grand scheme of things than a single player.

The next “big” signing may be the biggest

Messi is huge. A name that transcends the sport. But signing an upcoming 36-year-old, no matter who they are, is not the hallmark of a truly elite club or league.

The biggest moment will really come when MLS can sign players the size of Messi (realistically down a rung or two) in their prime. Messi is going to attract more attention than ever in the MLS. But what will those eyeballs see around the legendary #10? His new club are currently in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference and have just sacked their manager. One man alone cannot raise the overall level of a match. MLS offers entertaining football, quality players, globally renowned cities, good locations and great atmospheres. But it’s not the Premier League. It’s not LaLiga. It’s not even Ligue 1.

The endgame should be for American clubs to compete with Manchester, Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Juventus and Bayern for superstars a decade younger than Messi. Five years from now, someone we’ve never heard of could turn out to be the most influential signer to ever come to America.

Is Messi another step up the ladder to get there? Or another retirement trip? Time will tell.

Photos: Imago

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MLS,american football,Featured,Weekly,InterMiami,Lionel Messi,American football history

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