Tempting Lionel Messi to the United States could not solely be a matter of money. The money had to be right, of course. It had to be competitive. It was, Jorge Mas knew, perfectly possible that his attempt to persuade Messi, the greatest player of his generation, to sign for Inter Miami would fail because of money. But it would not succeed because of it. Not exclusively, anyway.
Nor, really, could Mas rely entirely on the other selling point he had identified as a possible advantage. Miami would appeal to Messi’s family, that was true. He and his wife, Antonella, already owned property there. His sons liked it. There was a strong, proud Argentine community in South Florida that could provide him with the maté and the facturas and the asado he required.
And while Miami could not offer Messi complete anonymity — he would still be mobbed when he went to the grocery store — it could offer him a version of normalcy in which it was theoretically possible for him to go to the grocery store in the first place. That, Mas was sure, would be appealing, but it could not be the whole appeal.
Instead, over the yearslong span of his courtship of Messi — Mas has said that he first hatched the idea in 2019, and has spent no little time since manifesting it into being — he chose to emphasize something else.
This, he repeatedly told Jorge Messi, the player’s father, agent and maven, was his son’s chance to leave a unique legacy. “When, in the history of a sport is there the possibility of changing the sport of a country?” Mas asked Jorge Messi. His son, Mas said, had the “opportunity and ability to change soccer in the United States, in the largest commercial market in the world.”
This week, Mas at last had the moment that vindicated not only all of his labor, but the nature of his pitch. In the pouring rain at the DRV-PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, he could finally present Messi not just as an Inter Miami player, but as what he called “America’s No. 10.”
True, there is work to be done. Soccer stadiums are called things like the Parc des Princes and San Paolo. It is wholly unacceptable that Messi might retire at something called the “DRV-PNK Stadium,” particularly considering that it is in Fort Lauderdale.
But still, Mas sensed that he was standing on the cusp of something epochal. For soccer in the United States, he said, there would always be “a before and an after Messi.”
This is, of course, a leitmotif in the story of soccer in the United States. It is a sport in constant search of its moment of ignition. At some point, the theory runs, the world’s game will assume its natural position at the top of the American sporting pyramid. Mas, doubtless, is sincere in his belief that the arrival of Messi will — at the very least — accelerate that process.
It goes without saying, too, that soccer in the U.S. still has plenty of room for growth. Some of those areas are tangible, or at least demonstrable: Attendances — not helped by the fact that some teams in Major League Soccer do not play in soccer-specific arenas — and audience figures and sponsorship revenues can all increase substantially.
Mexico would doubtless claim to be home to the highest-caliber domestic league in North America. M.L.S. certainly has some way to go before it can consider itself a peer of Ligue 1 in France, say, let alone the Premier League.
And some categories for growth are more intangible. Soccer does not yet have the grip on the American psyche that the N.F.L. can muster, for example. It is not as central to the culture as the N.B.A. It does not command the same sort of affection as baseball. It still feels, in many ways, far younger and far newer than it really ought to feel, especially this deep into its ascendant phase.
For all that it is agreed that soccer in the United States needs to grow, though, at some point it is probably worth pausing and reflecting on what the actual target might be.
Soccer, like all European cultural artifacts, has long been obsessed with cracking America, the place that has come to be seen as its final frontier. And plenty of people in the U.S. have spent vast swaths of their time working out how to make soccer happen. Nobody, though, has quite defined what success might look like.
The landscape into which Messi descended this week, for example, is vastly different from the one David Beckham — his forerunner turned employer — encountered when he arrived in Los Angeles in 2007. At that stage, M.L.S. consisted of only 13 teams. Toronto F.C. marked the league’s first, ginger outreach into Canada. It was still not uncommon to hear discussion of whether the entire business would survive.
Messi, on the other hand, finds himself entering a competition that now sprawls across much of a continent, from Vancouver to New York, Montreal to Miami. M.L.S. now has 29 teams, with a 30th, based in San Diego, set to be drafted into the league in 2025. It has an innovative, potentially lucrative streaming deal with Apple TV+ that served as a core part of the league’s pitch to Messi. The question is not whether M.L.S. will pull through. It is whether it has been a little too eager to acquiesce to all of those teams and all of those cities lobbying for expansion.
Far more significant, though, is the game’s imprint on the United States as a whole. Soccer is now the second-largest participation sport in the United States, behind only basketball. One Gallup poll found that more people regard it as their “favorite” sport, whatever that means, than would say the same about ice hockey. Last year, the FIFA video game outsold Mario Kart and at least one edition of Call of Duty.
Will Ferrell, Matthew McConaughey, America Ferrera and LeBron James all own portions of teams, either at home or abroad. Soccer is referenced on Modern Family and (the dearly departed) “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” It is hard to find a picture of Drake not wearing some team’s jersey. Kim Kardashian single-handedly taught millions of Americans about the greatness of Vincent Candela and Aldair when she was pictured wearing a vintage Roma jersey. That is not an afterthought: It is what cultural cut-through looks like.
All five of Europe’s major leagues have television deals in the United States. NBC has, in no small part, used its multiyear Premier League offering as a backbone for its Peacock streaming service. Fox, ABC, ESPN, Paramount, CBS, Univision and Discovery all broadcast soccer.
Robert Lipsyte, once a titan of these pages, might have bemoaned last week that European soccer does not have the same “emotional” impact to someone in Brooklyn as the fate of the Nets or the Mets might, but the evidence would suggest there are plenty of people who might disagree with him.
By many measures, in other words, soccer has made it in America. It has the toehold in the United States that it has always craved. To borrow from the wrestling parlance of last week’s newsletter, the sport has got over, and spectacularly.
That the sport does not perceive it that way — that it still feels as if this is a land to be conquered — might be to do with sheer, naked greed. Or it might be to do with just how accustomed it is to a monopoly position. Across most of the world, soccer is inarguably the national game, the sport of choice, by such a distance that everything else pales in comparison.
In those countries where it encounters resistance, then — in the United States and Australia, with their established quadrumvirates of major sports, in particular, as well as India and Pakistan, where cricket remains king — anything less than total obliteration of any opposition is treated as failure. Soccer confuses popularity with primacy.
That approach, though, is infused with futility. The Women’s World Cup this summer will, ideally, make more Australians like soccer. It will not make anyone turn away from Australian Rules Football to do so. Messi’s presence in the U.S. will expand the sport’s cultural reach. It is unlikely to affect viewership for the Super Bowl.
It is not a zero sum game. You do not only have to like one sport. Soccer can get bigger in the United States, of course. Messi’s glamour, his star power, the brilliant white heat of his talent will help pull in new viewers and, slowly, turn them into fans. There are always more hearts and minds to win, more eyeballs to retain.
Much of the work, though, has already been done. The change has already happened. Soccer has made it in the United States. As Mas might put it, we left the before behind long ago. We are already in the after, and have been for some time.
Sam Kerr’s Instagram post, published only a couple of hours before Australia’s opening game at the World Cup on Thursday, was written in what can be recognized as the striker’s straightforward, matter-of-fact style. She had picked up a calf injury. She would loved to have been available for the match with Ireland. That would not be possible.
The aim, surely, was to project an air that this was — to use the technical term — no biggie. Kerr did not want to be a distraction from a game her country has been anticipating for years. Still, her absence will have sent a shiver of anxiety through those fans heading to Stadium Australia. This was supposed to be Kerr’s tournament, after all, her chance to stage a “Cathy Freeman moment” of her very own.
Of substantially greater concern, though, was the statement published not long afterward by Australia’s medical staff, the one that said Kerr would miss the first two games of the tournament. That would be just about tolerable: Tony Gustavsson’s team should be good enough to see off Nigeria, just as it had Ireland.
The really bad news was in the fine print. The extent of Kerr’s injury will be assessed only after Thursday’s meeting with Nigeria in Brisbane. There is no guarantee, in other words, that Kerr will be fit in time to play in the group stage at all. It is not an exaggeration to say she will struggle to be in peak condition much before the tournament’s final rounds. And that is far from a worst-case scenario.
That is, of course, devastating not only for Kerr, but for Australia as a whole. In the buildup to the tournament, she has been more than willing to absorb expectation, to shoulder the burden of hope. It is to her credit that it does not seem to faze her in the slightest.
And yet that role carries with it a cost: It is not just the country that has a tendency to look to Kerr for inspiration, but the team itself. Australia with Kerr is a potential world champion; Australia’s case without her is not nearly so convincing. Its fans know that, and so do its players. They, more than anyone else, will be hoping that the tone of her message was meaningful, that the injury really is no biggie.
As the World Cup has drawn closer, that part of The New York Times’s sports department that is based in Europe — all three of us — has been cleft into factions.
One is very much of the view that the United States will, ultimately, lift a third World Cup in a row over the course of the next month. One believes that is hopelessly optimistic, and has taken to making dread prophesies of round-of-16 exits at the hands of Sweden. (Tariq has claimed, again and again, that “predictions are the preserve of the hubristic and the small-minded.”)
These groups do not align along national grounds. I have no vested interest in the U.S.’s success: As demonstrated by my outright refusal to use the word “cleats,” I am not American. It is clear that this iteration of the national team is not as strong as those that emerged victorious in 2015 and 2019.
It is, instead, effectively two teams slightly clumsily stitched together: one from yesterday, taking part in what is in some senses a valedictory tour, and one for tomorrow, fizzing with energy and rich with promise. Teams that win tournaments exist in a Goldilocks zone, neither too young or too old. The Americans are both.
And yet — with the U.S., there is always an “and yet” — the U.S. retains a psychological edge over almost every opponent it faces. Particularly during World Cups, it has an aura, the sort that can only be acquired over a generation, or more.
Teams do not have to beat the U.S. as it is; they have to beat the U.S. as they perceive them to be. They have to overcome their own admiration of the jersey, as much as the players that now fill them. That is a powerful advantage for the U.S. Whether it will be enough, of course, neither faction knows, not really.
It has been an educational week in the inbox. Michael Markman reminded me of something I did know, once, a long time ago: “The grammarian term for a base word that functions as either a noun or a verb is a gerund,” he wrote. (I had always assumed it was a participle that served as a noun, but I am willing to be corrected.)
Someone only identifying as Red, meanwhile, informed me of something that I did not know at all. (And, I think, had no real reason to know.) What has come to be termed “generational wealth” lasts only for three generations, they wrote, in reference to Jordan Henderson’s looming move to Saudi Arabia. “That is the average of new wealth for the past 200 years.” I mean, whichever way you look at it, three generations is quite a long time. Maybe not a monument more everlasting than bronze, but definitely not bad.
There were two subjects that dominated, though. One was your sincere, and sincerely appreciated, concern for the fate of this newsletter, and the mutually educational space it has fostered in the last few years. I won’t reproduce them out of deep-seated bashfulness, but suffice to say they were received with immense gratitude.
And the other was the validity of parallels between soccer and professional wrestling (a vague existential uncertainty generates quite an exciting, devil-may-care freedom, I have found). “Is the prime example of this not the transfer market?” asked Todd Reid, knowing the answer to his question was, “Well, yes.”
“It consumes as much, if not more, energy and coverage than matches themselves,” he wrote. “And add in the Saudi Arabia story line, and it’s a morality play set on the global stage, discussed and debated whether or not anyone ever actually watches a Saudi League match or not.”
There was a welcome reminder from Richard Duran on generalizations, too. “Not everyone reads the constant chatter about transfers, wages, Saudi involvement. I choose to enjoy soccer while the clock is running and it is still a beautiful game.” This is an admirable approach, and a legitimate correction. To some extent, though, how the industry that surrounds soccer presents the sport is as significant as how people choose to consume it.
And finally, Mark Harris has arrived, asking for a little bit of self-reflection. “How ironic that you don’t perceive that you are one of the prime instruments in pushing the behind the scenes stories over the actual sport,” he wrote. “Read the last year or so of your articles and tell me if I’m right.”
This is a charge I probably cannot deny, admittedly, but I’m going to take it as a compliment. Nobody has ever called me a prime instrument before. Not even when they’re really angry with me.
That’s all for this week, and for a little while: Remember, this newsletter will graciously cede the limelight to our daily World Cup briefing for the next few weeks. You should subscribe. We know, after all, that you like soccer and you like receiving newsletters. It’s basically a product designed with you in mind. I’ll be writing it sometimes. But you should subscribe anyway.