Dollars vs. trophies: At Messi’s Inter Miami, can business and soccer coexist?

Lionel Messi and Inter Miami are about to embark on a whirlwind preseason tour that will take them all around the globe. (Chris Arjoon / AFP)

MIAMI — Before they could complete one full week of preseason training, Lionel Messi and Inter Miami boarded a plane bound for El Salvador. They’ll go from there to Dallas, then more than 360 degrees around the globe. They’ll stop in Saudi Arabia to see Cristiano Ronaldo. They’ll jet to Hong Kong and Japan, then back home. They’ll log roughly 25,000 miles, potentially sapping their players’ strength — rather than building it — before the 2024 MLS season even begins.

And they’re hardly hiding the reasons for their world tour. They’re a team but “also a business,” midfielder Sergio Busquets acknowledged last week. “We understand that part.”

The traveling circus will net Inter Miami millions of dollars. It will help establish this ambitious club as a global brand. The question, of course, is whether it will compromise their ability to win soccer games.

They might ultimately play more than 60 games in 2024. Messi, between club and country, could traverse more than 100,000 miles. The unrelenting grind caught up to him and teammates last season. As they chased their second and third potential trophies of 2023, fatigue set in; Messi aggravated a lingering injury, and all momentum fizzled. “What I saw,” head coach Tata Martino said after a September loss, “was a team that was spent.”

You’d think, therefore, that managing the physical and mental loads of Messi-mania would be a priority entering 2024.

Business, though, requires that the club lean into it.

Inter Miami made roughly $120 million in 2023. Chief business officer Xavier Asensi wants $200 million in 2024 and eventually more. There’s a league-record payroll to cover and, more importantly, a $1 billion stadium development project to fund. So the club has hiked season-ticket prices, it has sought new sponsors, and it has arranged this seven-game, five-country preseason expedition. Each friendly likely yields a sizable appearance fee and opportunities to reach fans (customers) all around the world.

The players know this. The stars are accustomed. “We are devoted to the club, to the public, and we have to be prepared, whether in El Salvador, in Saudi Arabia, in Hong Kong, Japan, wherever we go,” Luis Suarez said last week.

What they need is balance. “We understand the business part, and we understand the sporting part,” Martino said. “The good thing about the club is that we try to make the two situations coexist without going too far to one side or the other.”

It’s a delicate dance that has become a staple of European soccer preseasons. Most coaches would prefer to camp out for weeks in a warm, remote locale, with a few scrimmages behind closed doors — and that’s what many MLS clubs do, including Inter Miami in 2023, because the brands they’re cultivating are mostly local. But Real Madrid and Manchester United, for example, are global brands, so they go touring. And now, so too does Inter Miami.

Messi and friends will play the El Salvador national team on Friday (8 p.m. ET, They’ll play FC Dallas at the Cotton Bowl three days later. A week after that, on Jan. 29 and Feb. 1, they’ll be in Riyadh for exhibitions with Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal and Al Nassr. On Feb. 4, they’ll play a Hong Kong all-star team. On Feb. 7, they’ll play the Japanese champions, Vissel Kobe. They’ll encounter awestruck crowds — and hardly have time to train.

And yes, Messi will play in most or all of the matches, even if they conflict with what most would consider a proper preseason regimen.

Inter Miami’s contracts with organizers, Martino said last week, “undoubtedly require the presence of our best footballers.”

None of them will play 90 minutes less than a week after preseason began last Saturday. But managing their minutes — and sometimes disappointing fans who’ve paid handsomely to watch them play — is an inexact science that will challenge Martino all season. Messi is 36. Jordi Alba, who also suffered a hamstring injury late last season, is 34. Busquets is 35. Suarez will soon turn 37, with worn-down knees that require pills and injections before every game.

Martino wishes they could play and entertain week after week. “But we also have an obligation to have a healthy team, a team that can carry us through an entire season,” he said. And they have four different competitions to navigate. They have the 34-game MLS regular season; the CONCACAF Champions Cup, a battle for regional supremacy that spans the spring; the Leagues Cup, a joint venture with Mexico’s Liga MX that interrupts the MLS slate in July and August; and the U.S. Open Cup, which will likely be deprioritized until the latter stages.

And then, of course, there are the MLS playoffs. In total, Miami could play up to 66 matches between Jan. 19 and Dec. 7. And it could travel more than 70,000 miles, surely a league record (though not quite a global soccer record).

Messi will also have international duties to fulfill. He will likely meet up with the Argentine national team for two March friendlies in China. He will depart Inter Miami for more than a month in June and July to take part in the 2024 Copa América. Argentina will likely play two friendlies in the U.S. before kicking off that tournament June 20 in Atlanta. They’ll hop around the U.S. East Coast and South, ideally back to Miami for the final on July 14.

In the fall, World Cup qualifiers will demand more taxing travel — to Buenos Aires and Barranquilla, Colombia, and Venezuela and Paraguay. It was there, down in South America last September, that Messi’s leg muscles faltered. Between the Leagues Cup, Open Cup, MLS and qualifiers, his calendar had ingested 25 games in 93 days, and he couldn’t quite handle them.

Nor could Inter Miami. “It’s really crazy the number of games we’ve played,” Martino said amid the grueling stretch. “And most have been critical games, which are draining physically and mentally.”

So how will they handle 2024? Probably with NBA-style load management throughout the MLS regular season, an interminable slog that eliminates less than half the league and admits even mediocre teams to the playoffs. That, in November and December, is when Messi and Suarez will need to be fresh — and when 25,000 preseason miles could come back to haunt them.

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