The version of Lionel Messi who has become South Florida’s reigning sport king is not the playmaker in his prime that he was for Barcelona or the tortured captain-under-pressure that he was for Argentina. The Messi of Miami is, in his own words, happy. Very happy.
Happy to have moved his family to a city where they used to vacation. Happy to greet legions of adoring fans. Happy to show his young new team, Inter Miami of M.L.S., how to win. Less happy, perhaps, to deal with South Florida’s crushing summer humidity.
Those were Messi’s reflections in the first news conference of his career in the United States, a rite of passage for newly acquired star players that was supposed to take place when he arrived about a month ago. But Messi is not just any player. He is known to rarely speak to reporters. And the circuslike atmosphere that surrounded his first days in town was unlike anything M.L.S. had ever seen, even when David Beckham arrived in 2007.
So Messi’s moment to meet the American press was delayed until now, after his team had won six straight games and he had scored nine goals for his new club. Inter Miami, which had the fewest points in M.L.S. regular-season play before it signed Messi, will now play the final of the new Leagues Cup tournament against Nashville S.C. on Saturday.
“I think the team experienced a lot of growth,” the soft-spoken Messi said in Spanish, crediting the new coach, Gerardo Martino, the Argentine known as Tata who had coached Messi at Barcelona and on the Argentine national team, with helping the turnaround. (Two of his former Barcelona teammates, midfielder Sergio Busquets and defender Jordi Alba, have also joined him at Inter.)
It was one of several understatements Messi delivered during a 20-minute news conference in which he took just 10 questions from a room packed with more than 70 reporters, a dozen television cameras and outlets from Argentina, Brazil and Spain. (“The best player in the history of world soccer just sat here!” one man exclaimed in Spanish to his viewers, pointing to a chair shortly after Messi left.)
When a reporter asked about the ease with which Messi and Inter Miami have defeated their M.L.S. and Liga MX opponents in the tournament, hinting at the inferior level of competition he now faces compared with Europe, Messi spoke about “setting difficult goals” for Inter — and praised Liga MX and M.L.S. teams’ ability to compete.
“The Mexican league is a very competitive league, where they have great, world-class players,” he said.
It was clear that Messi, 36, who led Argentina to its first World Cup championship in more than three decades last year, was in a more relaxed chapter of his career. Asked if he thought he might win the Ballon d’Or, the award given annually to the world’s best soccer player, for an eighth time, he said he was not considering it, especially “after having achieved the World Cup.”
Messi did acknowledge that tearfully leaving Barcelona in 2021 for Paris St.-Germain was a rough transition. The move happened “practically overnight,” he said, making it difficult for him to get used to a new club and a city that was not a particularly good fit for his family.
In contrast, his wife and three sons blessed coming to Miami, he said, characterizing it as a decision the family made together. Messi chose Miami over a reportedly more lucrative deal in Saudi Arabia, which is pursuing top talent, and over a potential return to Barcelona, which is in financial trouble.
“It’s a city of many Latinos, and that makes everything easier,” he said. “All the time, they are showing you affection, closeness. That, already, is the most important thing, the healthiest thing, and the most beautiful thing to adjust and be able to enjoy what you do.”
More than a hundred fans clad in Inter and Argentina jerseys waited outside the stadium to catch a glimpse of his departing car after the news conference, despite the rain.
“One never completely adapts to this climate,” Messi had said moments earlier.
James Wagner contributed reporting.