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

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

David Beckham, that international, helped Major League Soccer take on global significance during his 5 1/2 seasons with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Messi – who last year became the first MLS player to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or as a member of Inter Miami – will now take center stage as the league looks to extend that influence in his first full season.

But without Beckham, the idea of ​​Messi playing in MLS would seem like a childhood fantasy.

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

Beckham, one of the co-founders and co-owners of Inter Miami, 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 against the Galaxy on Sunday night, with Messi and Alba combining to score a picturesque goal in the second minute of second-half stoppage time to force a 1-1 draw.

Messi started the series by intercepting Miguel Berry’s clearance. The Argentina captain then performed a series of passes with Alba as both advanced towards the net. Messi had to drop 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 an eight-yard shot under the crossbar.

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

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

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

“Everyone sees his quality on the ball,” says Galaxy Manager Greg Vanney. ‘For me it’s his brain. It’s what he sees on the field. He recognizes different spaces. He always knows where everyone is. He has already organized what the next set of plays will look like – not just the next pass, but the next set of passes. It’s only 90 minutes of math.”

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

“We might have had a fan base of a few hundred thousand people before he came along,” Vanney said. “When I was in Europe before, people knew the MLS, but they didn’t know the MLS. They didn’t watch the competition. Then he comes in. Now it’s in the millions and it’s worldwide. People in countries that never paid any attention to the Milky Way suddenly did.”

Messi’s goal was the highlight of 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 read ‘Messi is the GOAT’, with the ‘G’ firmly entrenched in the Galaxy’s crest.

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

“I’ve seen it really crazy in the Beckham era, and then it was super crazy in the Zlatan era,” she said. “But this is about the earliest I’ve ever been to a game, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it this crazy busy 2.5 hours before kick-off. You feel the atmosphere and you feel the atmosphere. I know people want to compare Beckham and Messi all the time and that they are both more relevant to the league in different ways. But this, this is a bit crazy.”

Fans wearing Inter Miami Lionel Messi jerseys wait before entering the stadium ahead of the match against LA Galaxy. Photo: Kyusung Gong/AP

In the stadium, most fans identified with the Galaxy or Messi. The vast majority of the latter wore Miami’s black cycling jersey with a pink trim with Messi’s name and ’10’ on the back. One family wore matching black Messi jerseys, while the daughter hitched a ride on her father’s back. In another case, a man wore Miami’s all-pink Messi uniform — complete with shorts and socks — while his two daughters wore pink Messi jerseys and his wife wore black.

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“It just shows you what a cultural icon he is,” Nicolaou said of Messi. “It was the same with Beckham; people came to the matches wearing Manchester United or Real Madrid shirts. That’s when players make the transition and move beyond football and into pop culture. I think Messi, Beckham and Zlatan are to some extent crossing over into popular culture and feeding themselves just because of their popularity.”

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

“Beckham was very different,” Cauich said. “Beckham was football, but he was something else that involved a lot of things; he was a model. I think Messi is more suitable for people who like and appreciate football at international level. Even the people who don’t like Messi respect him for his talent. It’s a luxury to have him here. I think the fans are more mature now and appreciate such a star 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 “since the first game in the Rose Bowl” in 1996. “I think it has everything to do with everything from the World Cup to the clubs he played for. He is much better known, more recognized. I think it’s definitely very different from Beckham.

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

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

But fuss remains fuss.

“The hype is there,” said Miguel Gonzalez, a member of the Angel City Brigade, the Galaxy’s largest supporter group. “When Beckham was there, everyone was excited to see Beckham. As soon as we found out Messi was coming, it was the talk of the town.”

Garber hopes that excitement will raise awareness of MLS and spur growth.

“For me, this is very much about where we were in 2007 and where we are now,” Garber said, referring to Beckham’s first year in MLS. “I feel like this league has so much momentum, and I had that last year before Leo was signed. We were on track to have our best year ever, and we did it. We’ve launched our Apple partnership. Launch of the League Cup. So many exciting things came in. And Leo comes in and he takes it to another level.

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

“They couldn’t have picked a better player at that time to take our league to the next level and bring the attention he could bring,” Vanney said. “At the moment I don’t think they could have picked a better player than Messi to do what he is capable of doing, which is a whole different level.”