The latest chapter in Lionel Messi’s story has begun, with a move outside of Europe for the first time in his professional club career. Arguably the greatest player of all time will play for Major League Soccer side Inter Miami following his move from French champions Paris Saint-Germain, where he won the Ligue 1 title in both seasons at the club.
Despite those title wins, it hasn’t been the most successful period of Messi’s career. That sounds like a ridiculous statement when he was one of only two players across the top five European leagues to provide both 30+ goals and 30+ assists in competitive games – alongside Vinícius Júnior – during his time in France (32 goals, 34 assists).
Perhaps his career-defining moment came at the 2022 World Cup, where he ran riot in every game for Argentina and almost single-handedly won them the tournament. Not only did he become the leading scorer for Argentina in World Cup history, but he was also the first player in history to score in the group stage, round of 16, quarter-final, semi-final and final in a single edition of a men’s World Cup. This eventually led to him becoming the first ever multiple Golden Ball winner as the best player at a World Cup tournament, following his previous title in 2014.
As if we needed reminding, the 2022 World Cup finished with Messi showing exactly why he’s still the greatest player of the modern era.
The move to Inter Miami spells a new era in MLS history, where they have been able to attract some of the biggest names in football despite significant financial advantages coming from elsewhere. Is this the move that pushes Major League Soccer into an entirely new stratosphere, or merely a false dawn like previous marquee signings?
We look at the Messi of now compared to the Messi of past to assess whether Inter Miami are getting a player still in his prime.
The Barcelona Exit
It was the split that few expected would ever happen. Messi’s 21-year association with Barcelona ended in August 2021, when he left the Catalan side for PSG following the expiration of his contract.
The split, caused by “financial and structural obstacles” at Barca, was a hard one for both parties to take. Messi is still – and probably always will be – Barcelona’s record scorer with 672 goals, and he also won 10 La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues and seven Copa del Reys at the club, as well as claiming the Ballon d’Or on a record six occasions while a Barca player.
Even at the time of his departure in 2021, Major League Soccer was mooted as a destination for Messi, but the lure of Paris Saint-Germain and playing alongside Neymar and Kylian Mbappé in a three-pronged attack was too hard to turn down – and the money wasn’t bad either.
Arguably no player has ever been the face of Barcelona more than Messi was. His 778 competitive appearances for the club are still more than anyone else, while his goal tally is almost three times greater than the next best, César Rodríguez (232). He still holds the club records for the most goals in El Clásico (26), the most goals by a Barcelona player in a single season (73 in 2011-12) and a quite ridiculous 48 competitive hat tricks.
Messi also holds the La Liga goal record with 474 goals – a tally that is unlikely to ever be surpassed, considering the longevity of careers at single clubs or in single leagues in modern football. His tally – accumulated over 17 seasons in the competition – is 163 higher than next best Cristiano Ronaldo (311) in the rankings and 232 more than the next highest, Telmo Zarra (252).
Fifty of his league goals for Barcelona were scored in 2011-12, which also remains a record by a player in a single La Liga campaign. That season was one of the six in which he won the European Golden Shoe, awarded annually since 1968 to the top goalscorer in Europe. Since the launch of a weighted points system (which allowed players in tougher leagues to win even if they scored fewer goals than a player in leagues considered weaker), Messi is the only player to win it six times.
Of his 129 UEFA Champions League goals – a tally that only Ronaldo (140) has surpassed – 120 were scored in a Barcelona shirt, which is a record by a player at a single club in the competition.
The Champions League was the competition that Paris Saint-Germain wanted the most. It was the prize that still escaped them, despite playing 13 seasons in the competition since its rebrand in 1992-93. So, who better to bring in to achieve their ultimate goal than Messi?
A Messi Time in Paris
Yes, Paris Saint-Germain won both league titles across the two seasons that Messi was at the club, but so much more was expected. PSG winning the league in France is hardly anything new. Before Messi’s arrival, they may have lost out to Lille in 2020-21, but they’d previously won seven of the eight Ligue 1 titles.
The conclusion is clear: PSG failed to hit their targets in the Messi years. Those two league titles were the only major honours that PSG won across Messi’s two seasons in France, failing to win the UCL or even the Coupe de France.
To put the blame solely on Messi would be unfair. His struggles in his debut campaign in France were only relative to his previous success at Barca. Everyone expected sensational, record-breaking output from Messi, so when records weren’t threatened, the disappointment was audible.
For any normal forward, 25 goal involvements in 34 games (11 goals, 14 assists) with an average goal or assist every 115 minutes would be a very good return for a debut season at a top club. But Messi isn’t normal. This was his worst return at club level for 15 years, since averaging a goal involvement every 141 minutes at Barcelona in 2006-07. It was his lowest goal tally in a season since 2005-06 as a teenager with just over 1,500 minutes of professional football under his belt.
Following a second-leg collapse at Real Madrid in a tie they had led 2-0 on aggregate with just 29 minutes remaining before Karim Benzema scored a hat-trick to send PSG out, Messi and teammate Neymar received the brunt of the frustration from PSG fans about their lack of success despite having arguably the best three forwards in world football within their ranks.
The following home game against Bordeaux saw both players booed with every touch of the ball by the PSG fans. Those fans felt their club had outgrown Ligue 1 and only Champions League success was acceptable, but at the same time were quickly realising the club was built backwards, accumulating individual talent without building a successful collective unit.
The 2022-23 season didn’t get any better for PSG. Despite that, Messi began to display form on the levels of his time in Barcelona.
His total of 41 goal involvements in 41 appearances put him in a group of just six to total more than 40 in all competitions across top five European league players. He was the only player across the top five European leagues to both score (21) and assist (20) at least 20 goals in all competitions, while only Bruno Fernandes (146), Vinícius Júnior (103) and Kevin De Bruyne (98) created more chances from open play than he did (88).
It was a vast improvement on his first season in France, but the PSG honours list didn’t grow. The only major title that arrived was the league crown, just like the season before. Even then, their seven defeats suffered in 2022-23 was more than they’d collected in any of their previous 10 top-flight French league title-winning campaigns.
Yet again they fell at the last 16 stage of the Champions League, this time exiting with a whimper against one of the poorest Bayern Munich sides in recent years over two legs. That came exactly a month after also going out of the Coupe de France against rivals Marseille, again at the last-16 stage.
Messi’s individual numbers may have improved from his debut season in Paris, but the lack of team success meant a third season – and an extension of the original contract – was unlikely. It feels like the end of the PSG ‘Galácticos’ era, with Messi out the door and Neymar potentially joining him this summer.
The main question was where Messi would go to next. A return to Barcelona was the emotive option, but moves to either Saudi Arabia or the United States felt more logical…
Messi has decided. His destination: Inter Miami— Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague) June 7, 2023
Leo Messi se va al Inter Miami
Inter Miami was always going to be the most likely destination for Messi if the decision was to head to North America. That decision was confirmed on 7 June, and Major League Soccer welcomed the biggest player in their history.
The David Beckham-owned franchise certainly need him. Bottom of the Eastern Conference with 18 points from 22 games and among the two worst-performing MLS clubs overall in 2023, they sacked manager Phil Neville last month for poor performance.
Whilst Messi’s best years are behind him – he turned 36 last month – his performances last season in France, as well as his exceptional World Cup-winning displays in Qatar for Argentina, show he’s still among the top players in world football.
Messi’s move to Miami means that at least one player to have played in every men’s World Cup final since 1986 has gone on to play in Major League Soccer, while he’ll undoubtedly help extend the tally of 1,130 goals by Argentine players in the competition – a tally that’s only second to players of American nationality.
Messi’s new club have work to do to reach their goal of becoming North America’s best side.
In the Opta Power Rankings, they are currently ranked the 25th best team in the United States and are only 68th in the ranking for all CONCACAF clubs. Worldwide, Inter Miami are ranked 875th, two places above Scottish Premiership side Hibernian (877) and four below Welsh club Cardiff City, who play in the English Championship.
Based on the average ranking of its clubs, MLS is rated as the 31st strongest league across the world – not as strong as the Saudi Pro League (26th) and certainly nowhere near the strength of Ligue 1 (fifth).
This isn’t the first signing considered a game-changer for MLS – we’ve seen that with Beckham to the LA Galaxy (who signed when he was just 32 years old), Thierry Henry and Kaka. He will easily be the best player to have played in the competition, however.
With Barcelona legend Sergio Busquets already joining him in Miami and some other illustrious names linked to the club, it’s set to be a fun time to be a fan in Major League Soccer.