Inter Miami wasn’t far into their three-week, 37,000-mile preseason globetrotting tour when they started hitting bumps in the road. The star-studded roadshow headlined by Lionel Messi and his latest support act, Luis Suárez, was set to take the world by storm, from El Salvador to Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong, but the exercise has backfired. Several defeats and no-shows from the stars left spectators dissatisfied, reputations diminished and the team, as well as fans at home, unsure of how much they will get from their aging legends once the MLS season begins.
As the tour reaches its final leg in Japan against Vissel Kobe on Wednesday, before returning to Miami for a match against Newells Old Boys, there will have been boos for David Beckhama Cristiano Ronaldo exit, a 6-0 defeat and an almost surreal statement from the Hong Kong government expressing its “deep disappointment” at Messi’s absence.
As many predicted when the dates were announced, tens of thousands of air miles in addition to preseason games and training began to take their toll on the players. Messi suffered an injury during the first match in Saudi Arabia against Al Hilal, and from then on his involvement decreased.
During the most recent port of call in Hong Kong, where Inter Miami faced a vaguely named “Hong Kong Team”, there were boos as franchise owner Beckham addressed the crowd after the match. Fans, and apparently the government as well, had expected to see Messi. There was some initial disappointment when he was only listed as a substitute, but he was still hopeful that he would appear. He didn’t.
Beckham was one of many targets for boos as fans expressed their disappointment at the personalities they had come to adore, with some supporters asking for a refund. The South China Morning Post described it as ‘the biggest disappointment of all time’. It was later announced that Miami’s staff had decided not to field Messi at all on the afternoon of the match due to an adductor injury.
“The government today (4 February) expressed its deep disappointment that Messi did not play at Tatler XFEST Hong Kong, Hong Kong Team v Inter Miami CF, and that the organizer failed to quickly provide a detailed explanation” , said an official statement from the Hong Kong government. “The event has been awarded ‘M’ Mark status, as well as a matching grant of 15 million euros [$1.9m] and a 1 million location grant [$128,000] by the Committee for Major Sporting Events.”
“M” Mark status is awarded to major sporting events held in Hong Kong. It’s safe to say that the only reason to grant such status to a match between the team that finished 27th out of 29 teams in the MLS last season and a representative side from Hong Kong was Messi.
“The government, like all football fans, is extremely disappointed that Messi could not play in the friendly match nor provide personal explanations to the fans upon request,” the statement said. “The way the organizer and Inter Miami CF handled the situation could not meet the expectations of the fans who strongly supported Messi, especially the visitors who came all the way here for the match.”
One of the organizers, Tatler
The tour will likely be a commercial success given the tickets sold and the extra attention Inter Miami has received. But in terms of growing one positive reputation and promoting Major League Soccer and the club in a positive way, it has done more harm than good.
The Miami tour was also intended to be an MLS Season Pass showcase, the league’s streaming package, with Messi at the helm — a promotional whirlwind for the league and its subscription broadcast service on Apple TV+. Inter Miami was the only MLS team to have this phase of their preseason broadcast in such a manner. Initially, this irritated the supporters of the other teams in the league, who were already tired of the constant focus on Inter Miami and some of whom wanted to assess their own side’s progress in the preseason. As Miami’s tour comes to an end, the annoyance from fans of other MLS teams over Inter Miami’s favorable treatment has diminished and been replaced by schadenfreude.
The tour kicked off in January with matches in El Salvador and Dallas, which were free to watch on the MLS website. The MLS Season Pass phase of the exhibition landed in Saudi Arabia, ahead of a match against Al Nassr that was known as ‘the last dance’ between Messi and Ronaldo. Ultimately, Ronaldo was unavailable due to injury and Messi appeared for seven minutes plus extra time towards the end of the match. This highlight of the tour was not exactly as billed. The Spanish sports newspaper Marca called it a Last Dance Disaster.
In their first match against Saudi opponents, Miami lost 4–3 to Al Hilal. After Messi chose MLS over the big money from the Saudi Professional League last year, these matches, preseason training or not, were seen as an opportunity for the North American league to confirm its ability on and off the pitch compete with the SPL. . The 6-0 defeat against Ronaldo-less Al Nassr was not what they had in mind.
Under normal circumstances, preseason matches mean nothing more than building match fitness, trying out new tactics and getting the team together in a matchday routine. Under normal circumstances, the results don’t matter much. However, these were not normal circumstances. These games were marketed as meaningful. They certainly mattered to the fans who paid huge sums for tickets and trips to see Messi and Co as advertised. The starting price for tickets to the Last Dance was $100, while premium tickets went up to $11,214.
These games didn’t have to be this way. No Inter Miami match does that. But for Messi’s time in the league, it looks like he will be both a marketing tool and an all-time great footballer. be able to get the chance to enjoy it if they manage to get a ticket to a match.
There is no guarantee that a player will start a football match. That’s the nature of a physical, competitive sport. It’s up to Miami head coach Tata Martino to select a team and manage his roster to get the most out of each player. In a campaign that could last from February to December and include three cup competitions on top of the regular season matches, followed by the MLS Cup Playoffs, players including Messi will need to be rested and rotated.
This preseason pantomime can also serve as a warning for spectators looking to attend Inter Miami’s competitive matches in the 2024 season. Fans in the United States have already experienced something similar to those in Hong Kong, when Messi missed the highly anticipated MLS matches in Orlando, Atlanta and Chicago at the end of the 2023 season, as well as the US Open Cup final.
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Although Inter Miami is being marketed as Messi’s roadshow, it is a working football team, with a head coach who will have to make decisions about squad rotation and player welfare. Regardless of status or star power, no player’s fitness can be guaranteed from one game to the next.
You can’t blame Martino for giving Messi a break when he needed it. You can’t blame Messi for being human and taking hits, especially at his age. You can’t blame the fans for expecting Messi when Messi was the focus of the organizers’ and the competition’s promotional material. They are promoted less as Inter Miami and more as Lionel Messi FC, which is understandable in a way given Messi’s status, but the balance has now tipped too far towards the individual.
Raped in Saudi Arabia and booed in Hong Kong. Logistically unfair to the players, even though many will undoubtedly talk about it for years to come. Financially unfair to fans who felt they didn’t get what they paid for. This promotional tour failed, both reputationally and commercially, and the game in Japan will not be shown on the MLS Season Pass as initially planned. To say Miami’s preseason tour was a circus would be unfair to the acrobats and clowns.
Messi playing the final seasons of his career in the MLS should be a glorious moment for the sport and its fans to enjoy, but if lessons aren’t learned from this preseason parody, that fun will be spoiled.