When David Beckham was starting a new football team in Miami, he wanted the world’s greatest player. He tells Matt Dickinson how signing Lionel Messi has brought A-listers to the stands.
David Beckham sat with a creative agency in Brooklyn more than six years ago looking through 100 years of football logos and jerseys. Through all the colours and designs, from the classic to the garish, he saw something was missing. Pink. Vibrant pink. There was the odd glimpse of it, like Palermo’s shirts in Italy’s second division, but pink had never been a familiar football colour. (We probably don’t need to waste time pondering why — man’s game and all that…)
For Beckham, who was building a new football club from scratch in Miami and eager to make an impact from the start, pink was perfect. It was the colour of Miami sunsets, the city’s art deco buildings, Don Johnson’s outfits in Miami Vice. “Drive around Miami and it’s a very recurring colour,” Beckham explains. For his new team, Inter Miami (strictly speaking, Club Internacional de Fútbol Miami, in a nod to the large Hispanic community), it was a colour to stand out from the crowd.
A bit like that sarong he famously wore back in the Nineties, Beckham knew some would not approve. “At the time a lot of people were saying, ‘Don’t go for pink.’ I was the one who said it has to be the main colour. So that was me. I’m actually very proud of it. I am glad I held my nerve and pushed it through.” Brand It Like Beckham, to borrow a phrase.
He had the look; he just needed the right man to wear it. And then came the chance to sign the outstanding footballer of his generation, perhaps the greatest of all time.
Put Lionel Messi in one of those pink shirts and you have a phenomenon, a game-changer — and access to his countless fans around the world including more than 490 million who follow him on Instagram (Inter Miami had around 1 million before Messi signed from Paris Saint-Germain in July and he quickly added more than 14 million).
You have a celebrity magnet who attracted LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian to his debut in Florida; Tom Ford to watch the first soccer game of his life. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Harry and Meghan, Tom Brady, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon… All have come in hope of catching a bit of Messi magic, to see him in the pink.
Whether this is how to break America — that holy grail for pop bands and sports — is something we will come on to. But it has certainly created a buzz and, according to The New York Times, made that pink Messi 10 shirt “the hottest piece of sports merchandise on the planet”. It became the most-sold jersey of 2023 in America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) within 45 minutes of launch and the highest-selling in the history of the league within three days. Messi Meets America, on Apple TV+, has become a six-part series even though he has only played around a dozen matches.
“We went with it, stuck with it and now it’s one of the standout jerseys in the world,” Beckham says, which might be pushing it, but something has shifted over the Pond. The hope is that luring Messi will not just be transformative in Miami, but across American sport.
Beckham calls to talk a few days after he was on stage in Paris to present Messi with a record eighth Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player largely for his triumph in guiding Argentina to World Cup glory last December, scoring twice in the final in the crowning moment of a wondrous career.
“It was pretty surreal,” Beckham says. “To be on that stage as the owner of the team he plays for, giving him his eighth Ballon d’Or.” A friendly match was hurriedly arranged — “Noche d’Or” — for his Miami team against New York City FC simply so that Messi could be presented with the trophy again and address his new fans.
“When you bring the best player in the world, all he stands for on and off the field, someone who has won everything, a superstar, to come and take America by storm — it’s not just a gift to the Miami fans, it’s a gift to America,” Beckham says. “Because you bring someone like that and he takes the sport to a different level.”
This is the story of Messi, Beckham and Miami but also about the irresistible growth of football, or soccer. It has long been the world’s most popular sport but the global reach, the cultural fascination, even the geopolitical power spreads incessantly. From China to Australia to the Indian subcontinent, every nation wants part of the action, the stardom. The two most followed Instagram accounts in the world? Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, at more than 1 billion combined.
The Middle East is engaged in a competitive land grab, with last year’s Qatar World Cup to be trumped in 2034 by the most extravagant ever in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom throws billions at building a league and attracting superstar players including Ronaldo. But, in Messi, the United States nabbed the most revered of them all.
The US has its own highly developed, intensely packed sports market but football keeps muscling in, refusing to take no for an answer. The country is the main base for the next World Cup in 2026, and the expectation is that the tournament marks the maturing of America into an authentic soccer nation.
It has been a long, sometimes turbulent adolescence. An attempt to promote soccer by attracting an ageing Pelé to the New York Cosmos in the Seventies fizzled out quicker than the flared trousers of the time. The North American Soccer League was a lesson in hype and hubris — a culture clash famously summed up when Steve Ross, the TV mogul and Cosmos investor, saw Franz Beckenbauer, the German legend, assume his familiar command at the back only to tell his coaching staff, “Get the Kraut into midfield! We’re not paying him all that money to play defence!”
The last time the World Cup came to America in 1994 there was no professional league to speak of. But that tournament fuelled the launch of the MLS in 1996 and, this time, it was here to stay. From 10 clubs at the start, there will be 30 by 2025. By most measures it is still dwarfed by the main American sports. Average revenues for an MLS team are about US$60 million; according to one study, the figure for baseball teams is US$313 million and for the NFL US$581 million.
But among the 18-29 age group, at least one poll has soccer outstripping baseball as the favourite sport. The MLS crowds are younger, more diverse, and they are growing. And, in Messi, they have one of the most startling signings in the history of American sports.
At 36 he may fit the idea that American fans only get to see the biggest stars when they are past their best — Steven Gerrard, Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney among those who crossed the Atlantic after their work in Europe was done. But no one is calling Messi a has-been or questioning an impact that, Beckham acknowledges happily, has surpassed his own in moving from Real Madrid to LA Galaxy in 2007.
It is startling to be reminded in the Beckham documentary on Netflix just what a leap it was to move to the MLS. To call the football amateurish is being kind. Beckham sits on the sidelines at his first game for LA Galaxy grimacing as the ball bounces off team-mates’ shins. With the pitch covered in lines from American football, he cannot work out in one game if the ball has run out or not.
“Lines on the pitch, plastic pitches, which then were like concrete,” he says. “When I first moved, especially from a club like Real Madrid at 31, people were very critical. It wasn’t professional like it is now. But I saw the opportunities.”
His leap of faith was emboldened by one clause he insisted on in his contract — the smartest deal he ever struck — which was an option to own a new MLS team for just US$25 million in the city of his choice, as long it was not New York. “Quite a good decision,” he says now, laughing at his own understatement.
In 2015, a year after Beckham triggered that clause to set up his new team in Miami, New York City FC paid US$100 million to set up the franchise there. FC Cincinnati paid US$150 million in 2018. Los Angeles FC were recently valued at US$1 billion. “I’d like to think we are up there as well,” Beckham says. “I don’t think they will ever do a clause like that again.”
Good for him but, long-term, it was beneficial also for the league in tying Beckham’s brand to its own. There was a mutual commitment that, in March 2020, finally led to Inter Miami playing their first MLS fixture. It had been a tortuous process involving years of wrangling over potential sites for a stadium. The team plays 30 miles north in Fort Lauderdale in a temporary 25,000-capacity ground while they build a permanent home in Freedom Park, Miami, by 2025. It has all come together now but Beckham calls it “the hardest as well as the most rewarding thing I’ve done. It’s been a struggle.”
All that toil meant that when Messi signed, Beckham was at the training ground every day at 7am. “Firstly, I wanted to be in before Leo to show him I was there and the commitment I have to the team and the club. But it was also important for me to enjoy this moment after all the hard work. I wanted to see him come in, see him go about everything he does so professionally, setting an example to all the young kids here. He is a superstar, but the most humble superstar. And I just love to watch him train. Anyone who has seen him live knows he’s different, special. People said he might need time to fit in. It took him seconds.”
Messi’s debut for Miami came 16 years to the day after Beckham’s for LA Galaxy. Ticket prices for the match against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup — a competition featuring MLS teams against Mexican rivals — traded for up to US$1,000. Miami reckoned they could have sold out five times.
The game was tied 1-1 when, in the fourth minute of added time, Miami won a free kick 25 yards from goal. The moment that Messi whipped it into the top corner has been viewed more than 10 million times across YouTube. TV replays show fans gawping at each other in disbelief. For American sports fans, it was like watching Tiger Woods chip in or Michael Jordan slam dunk.
“That’s what Leo does — he gives people moments they will never forget,” Beckham says. “And it’s what the American audiences love — to be entertained. Right from putting that free kick into the top corner, he set the bar so high.”
It marked the consummation of a courtship that had taken almost four years. It was in September 2019, before Inter had played their first MLS match, that Beckham and his partners flew to Barcelona on a secret mission, meeting Jorge Messi, the player’s father and agent. Beckham was joined by Jorge Mas and his brother Jose, two Miami billionaire businessmen who are now majority owners of the club with the former England captain retaining a stake, understood to be around 25 per cent.
They knew they were up against many bidders, richer ones too, especially from Saudi. Messi already had a contract to promote tourism in the country. “We always knew there would be competition,” Beckham says. “The time I got a bit worried was when Barcelona showed interest. The club obviously pulls on his heartstrings and he never really got to say the goodbye he deserved there. That was the only time I started to worry he might go somewhere else. But we did everything possible — me, Jorge and Jose. And then getting that phone call that he’s decided to come to us…” Beckham pauses. “It still gives me goose bumps.”
They sold him a deal that runs until winter 2025, worth US$50-US$60 million a year. Miami gave him the familiarity of a known coach in “Tata” Martino, formerly with him at Argentina and Barcelona, and former Nou Camp team-mates in Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. For next season, Messi has a familiar strike partner in Luis Suarez, who also has his stamp of approval.
After two years when Messi never settled in Paris, the business partners knew that the player, his wife, Antonela, and their three sons would relish life in Miami. Jorge Mas tells The Times, “It was very difficult to compete solely on an economic basis but we had our city, what it represents, but also a place where his family could enjoy themselves. Miami is the unofficial capital of the Americas, a bilingual city. The majority of the population is Hispanic from south and central America and I think that was an extremely attractive thing for Lionel.” Far more appealing, certainly, than Riyadh.
When it came to football, Mas says that he posed a challenge to Messi. “I said, ‘How many elite athletes have had the opportunity to change a sport in a country?’ It is transformational for the sport in the United States. This is just the beginning. His presence, medium to long-term, will prove that this league belongs among the world’s best leagues over time.”
Mas confirms that Messi’s contract gives him a stake in the club whenever he finishes playing. Following the Beckham model, it ties his brand to Miami and the league while incentivising him to drive the operation forward. Everyone expects to benefit. Miami predict revenues will double to more than US$100 million in 12 months.
“The same as with me, I see Leo’s involvement in the league a lot longer than his playing time,” Beckham adds. “We are very keen to keep him to help attract players and be involved with the football development of the club and football in the US. I think that will be a lot of fun for him as it’s been for me.”
Some will say that America’s best contribution to soccer until now has been Ted Lasso. There are reasons beyond Messi to believe that the sport has a foothold that can only grow stronger over the next few years. The country hosts the Copa America in 2024 and the Fifa Club World Cup in 2025 before the 2026 World Cup.
Soccer grows whether in the grassroots or, indeed, in the viewing numbers for the Premier League, which have increased so strongly that NBC almost doubled its deal to £2 billion over six years to show the best of English football. Whether that is good news or not for the MLS, it does show that soccer’s fanbase keeps spreading.
Too much dependence on one player, even one as special as Messi, can be dangerous, as was highlighted when a hamstring injury put him on the sidelines. Miami went on a losing streak, missing out on the end-of-season MLS play-offs.
It was a frustrating end to his first season but he has brought spectacle and sponsors as well as Kardashians to games. He has given soccer in the US credibility in ways far beyond helping his team to win the Leagues Cup and his 11 goals in 14 matches, wearing the captain’s armband. “I think what makes the Messi story in 2023 so special is he delivered in ways that nobody could have imagined,” Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, says.
Shirt sales have certainly not disappointed. In the summer, Adidas could not make them fast enough. According to the New York Times, Fanatics, which dominates sports apparel in the US, sold more Messi jerseys since July than for any other soccer player, and any athlete at all except the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. For Adidas, it is the best-selling soccer jersey in North America ahead of European giants including Manchester United and Real Madrid.
No wonder Beckham sounds rather pleased about his choice of colour — not pastel pink or fuchsia but Pantone 1895 C — and the coup of attracting Messi to wear it. “I promised the fans and people of Miami that I wanted to bring some of the best players in the world. I am sure every owner says that but, from day one, he was the dream player I wanted to bring to Miami. I see him in our kit, I watch him train and play, and I can’t believe that we have Lionel Messi in our club.”
I wonder if Messi has to call him boss, given he is the owner. “Some of them call me that,” Beckham says. “But I don’t make any demands of Leo and I don’t need to.” Put him in the pink shirt, give him a ball and let America be seduced.
Written by: Matt Dickinson
© The Times of London