‘It’s a luxury to have him’: how Messi is building on Beckham’s legacy

MLS

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<span>27,000 people attended <a class="lazy lazy-hidden link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/teams/la-galaxy/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:LA Galaxy;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">LA Galaxy</a> versus Inter Miami, the largest regular-season crowd in LA’s history. </span><span>Photograph: Gary A Vasquez/USA Today Sports</span>

The atmosphere surrounding Lionel Messi’s most recent match at the Dignity Health Sports Park featured the kind of energy, anticipation and hype that permeated the place when an England international called it home.

David Beckham, that international, propelled Major League Soccer into global significance during his 5 1/2 seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Messi – who became the first MLS player to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or last year as a member of Inter Miami – now becomes the league’s focal point to expand that influence in his first full season.

But without Beckham, the idea of Messi playing in MLS would resemble a children’s fantasy.

“If not for him, there’s no Leo Messi,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “Somebody wrote this article or a headline that said, ‘Will David Beckham change the course of soccer in America?’ He didn’t just do it once. He did it twice.”

Beckham, one of Inter Miami’s co-founders and co-owners, not only brought over the Argentine superstar but also turned the club into the Miami chapter of the FC Barcelona Alumni Association by signing three of his former club teammates: Luis Suárez, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.

All four started Sunday night against the Galaxy, with Messi and Alba combining on a picturesque goal in the second minute of second-half stoppage time that forced a 1-1 draw.

Messi began the sequence by intercepting Miguel Berry’s clearance. Argentina’s captain then executed a series of passes with Alba as both advanced toward the net. Messi had to lunge to receive Alba’s final ball, a cross from the left side of the penalty area. But Messi slid forward and used his left foot to tap a rising 8-yard shot under the crossbar.

The crowd of 27,642 – the largest in 10 years and the biggest for a Galaxy regular-season match in the stadium’s history – erupted. Messi and Alba hugged. The crowd responded with chants of “Me-ssi, Me-ssi, Me-ssi!”

That crowd included more than 30 stars from entertainment and sports – including Novak Djokovic, Edward Norton, Halle Berry, Liv Tyler and Halle BerryHalle Berry.

Related: Super-glued sliders and 70-yard screamers: the highs and lows of David Beckham’s MLS legacy

Meanwhile, as everyone in his suite reacted with exuberance, Beckham savored Messi’s goal with stoic satisfaction.

“Everybody sees his quality on the ball,” Galaxy Manager Greg Vanney said. “For me, it’s his brain. It’s what he sees on the field. He recognizes different spaces. He knows where everybody is all the time. He’s already organized what the next series of plays is looking like – not just the next pass, but the next series of passes. It’s just 90 minutes of calculation.”

Vanney personally knows how much difference an international superstar can make. Vanney played for the Galaxy in its first six seasons, 1996-2001, before he moved to Europe, then ended his career with the Galaxy in 2008 – Beckham’s first full season in Los Angeles.

“We may have had a fanbase of a few hundred thousand people before he came,” Vanney said. “When I was in Europe prior to that, people knew of the MLS, but they didn’t know the MLS. They didn’t watch the league. Then he comes in. Now, it’s in the millions and it’s worldwide. People in countries who never paid any attention to the Galaxy all of a sudden did.”

Messi’s goal culminated a day marked by enthusiasm. About three hours before kickoff, fans were tailgating in a parking lot that was nearly 60% full. A band of five Mexican-American musicians played regional music. One fan wore a shirt that proclaimed, “Messi is the G.O.A.T.,” with the “G” firmly embedded in the Galaxy’s crest.

Sophie Nicolaou, who has covered MLS for talkSPORT since 2011, noticed a fundamental difference between the response to Messi’s first road game against the Galaxy and the fans’ reaction to Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimović.

“I’ve seen it really super crazy in the Beckham era, and then it was super crazy with the Zlatan era,” she said. “But this is about the earliest I’ve ever gotten to a game, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it this insanely busy 2 1/2 hours before kickoff. You can feel the vibe and you can feel the atmosphere. I know people want to compare Beckham and Messi all the time and they both have more relevance to the league in different ways. But this, this is kind of crazy.”

In the stadium, most fans identified either with the Galaxy or Messi. The vast majority of the latter wore Miami’s black road jersey with pink trim featuring Messi’s name and ‘10’ on the back. One family wore matching black Messi jerseys, with the daughter riding piggyback on her father’s back. In another case, a husband wore Miami’s all-pink Messi kit – complete with shorts and socks –while his two daughters wore pink Messi jerseys and his wife wore a black one.

“It just shows you kind of the cultural icon that he is,” Nicolaou said of Messi. “The same was with Beckham; people turned up to games in Manchester United shirts or Real Madrid shirts. That’s when players crossover and go beyond football and get into pop culture. I think Messi and Beckham and Zlatan, to an extent, crossover and feed themselves into popular culture just because of their popularity.”

Related: Redondo signing shows Inter Miami are planning for life beyond Messi

For Eduard Cauich, the sports editor for the Los Angeles Times’ Spanish-language edition, Messi represents a greater focus on soccer than Beckham’s diversified influence in pop culture.

“Beckham was way different,” Cauich said. “Beckham was soccer but he was something else that involved many, many things; he was a model. I think Messi is more for people that enjoy and appreciate soccer at the international level. Even the people that don’t like Messi respect him because of his talent. It’s a luxury to have him here. I think the fans are more mature now and they appreciate a star like that more.”

One Galaxy fan even notices a difference. “I think Messi has a different impact right now,” said Johnny Cano, who has supported the club “ever since the first game at the Rose Bowl,” in 1996. “I think everything has to do with everything from the World Cup to the clubs he’s played for. He’s a lot more famous, more recognized. I think it’s definitely a lot different from Beckham.”

Perhaps the biggest difference lies in MLS’ ability to manage the demands an international superstar brings. Joe Tutino, the Galaxy’s radio voice since 1999, remembers Beckham’s debut in July 2007 in a friendly against Chelsea.

“That was crazy electric,” Tutino said. “I think at the time, MLS didn’t know how to handle a superstar like David Beckham, and certainly the Galaxy didn’t know how to handle him from the start. I think MLS is a little bit more grown up now.”

Yet hoopla remains hoopla.

“The hype is up there,” said Miguel Gonzalez, who belongs to the Angel City Brigade, the Galaxy’s biggest supporters’ group. “When Beckham was around, everybody was excited to see Beckham. As soon as we found out Messi was coming, it’s been the talk of the town.”

Garber hopes that excitement will increase MLS’s prominence and stimulate growth.

“To me, this is very much about where we were in 2007 and where we are today,” Garber said in reference to Beckham’s first year in MLS. “I feel this league has so much momentum, and had it last year before Leo was signed. We were on track to have our best year ever, and we did. We launched our Apple partnership. Launched the Leagues Cup. We had so many exciting things coming in. And Leo comes in and he takes it to another level.”

Vanney, because of his experience with Beckham, believes Messi is the perfect vehicle to reach that goal.

“They couldn’t have picked a better player at that moment to take our league to the next level and bring the attention that he was able to bring,” Vanney said. “At this point, I think they couldn’t have picked a better player than Messi to do what he’s been able to do, which is a whole other level.”

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