Lionel Messi has announced that he will be joining Major League Soccer (MLS) club Inter Miami in the next season. Since it was confirmed that Messi will leave Paris, Miami came up time and again as one of the probable destinations for the Argentine maestro.
Many didn’t pay much attention to Miami’s offer as it paled in comparison to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal’s lofty proposal. Messi wanting to return to Barcelona also made Miami seem like an unlikely choice.
In the past few months, Messi has been linked with Al-Hilal and Barcelona much more than Miami. But the Florida-based US franchise, which is owned by former England midfielder David Beckham, quietly completed the agreement with the Argentine World Cup winner.
Messi, however, is not the first football megastar to play in the US league. Many greats of the game have graced the US in the past. The first football superstar to do so was the Brazilian legend Pele.
Pele, who is considered as one of the greatest footballers of all time, never played in a European league but he did play in the US. But at the time, the league wasn’t called ‘Major League Soccer’, it was called ‘North American Soccer League.’
In 1975, at 35 years of age, Pele left Brazilian club Santos and went to the US. There, he signed with New York Cosmos. Pele played a huge role in popularising football in the US.
There was a time when no one watched football in the US. Americans weren’t interested in watching the most popular sport in the world. All that changed after Pele signed with New York Cosmos. The people in the US started paying attention to football. Although the US had played in the first World Cup back in 1930 and shocked everyone by defeating England in the 1950 World Cup, it was Pele’s arrival at Cosmos that rejuvenated the sport in the US.
May other world famous footballers followed Pele’s footsteps and arrived in the US. The list includes names like Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller from Germany, Dutch legend Johan Cruyff, English icons Bobby Moore and George Best.
Even in recent times, many famous players like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Gareth Bale, David Villa, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Zlatan Imbrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and Kaka have played in the MLS.
Cruyff could’ve played at New York Cosmos like Pele. But he refused their offer and joined Los Angeles Azteca in 1979.
Muller arrived in the US in 1979 after finishing his Bundesliga career. He scored 38 goals in three seasons for the Ford Lauderdale Strikers.
Beckenbauer had arrived in the US before Muller. In 1977, he signed with NY Cosmos. A fun fact – Beckenbauer’s first match for NY Cosmos was Pele’s final match for the club. Beckenbauer played for five years in the US.
The 1966 World Cup winning English captain Moore played in the US in the same period as Beckenbauer. He joined Texas San Antonio Thunder in the final days of his career. Moore played 24 matches for the Thunder’s. His compatriot Best went to the US in 1981 and played for the San Jose Earthquakes.
After the MLS kicked off in 1993, more and more marquee players started making the trip to the US to play club football because in the new league, the pay for the players increased significantly. However, MLS is still seen as the league where star players go right before retiring.
Before Messi’s agreement with Inter Miami, the biggest football star to play in the MLS in the recent past was Beckham. The English midfielder played for Los Angeles Galaxy. After him, Swedish striker Ibrahimovic also played for the LA Galaxy.
World Cup winning French striker Henry played for New York Red Bulls. Another World Cup winner, Spanish forward David Villa, played for New York FC. Brazil’s Kaka played for Orlando City, England’s Rooney played for DC United and Schweinsteiger played for Chicago Fire FC.
Former Chelsea stars Lampard and Drogba played for New York FC and Phoenix Rising respectively. In the 2022-23 pre-season, former Real Madrid star Gareth Bale joined Los Angeles City.