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Messi mania: The star player brings wins for Miami's soccer club


A major international soccer tournament ended over the weekend with a victory by the lowest-ranking U.S. team. Inter Miami beat Nashville to win the Leagues Cup. Miami fans hope it's the first of many such victories with soccer superstar Lionel Messi. He joined the roster just about a month ago. Matheus Sanchez is with member station WLRN in Miami. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: What makes Messi such a force?

SANCHEZ: Well, this is a special player. I mean, we're talking Tom Brady territory here. He's certainly the best soccer player of his generation. He's truly a global sensation. He has broken records in Europe over the last 20 years, and he plays what's the most beautiful incarnation of the game. He loves to attack and dribble past players. He has the vision of a quarterback when it comes to assists. And he scores many goals and often quite sensational ones, as we've seen. Now, he's won the World Cup with Argentina just last year, and at 36, he's still near the peak of his powers. So really, his move to Miami shocked the world. It was a huge win for Miami, a team that was struggling badly, as you say, and for the MLS league. And really, it's a source of pride that he's chosen to live and play here.

SHAPIRO: Have you been surprised by how quickly he seems to have transformed the team?

SANCHEZ: Well, yes and no. Now, for some context, you know, the team has really seemed kind of cursed. Since David Beckham, who is a soccer idol himself, announced Inter Miami in 2014, there's been endless issues on and off the field. They finally kicked off in 2020 for the first time under COVID protocols in a temporary stadium in a different county. Since then, they've reached the playoffs just once, and the permanent stadium in Miami is still a couple years away. And this season, they have the worst record in the league, and not just that. They have been pretty awful to watch. So while expecting Messi to have a huge impact, the immediacy and the level of the turnaround has been truly extraordinary. Just days after signing, he came off the bench to score a beautiful last-minute winner. And now, four weeks later, they've lifted a trophy while he has scored seven - 10 goals in seven games. I mean, you really couldn't make it up.

SHAPIRO: I'm not trying to denigrate U.S. soccer here, but do you think Messi has had an easier time leading his team to victory because of the quality of the competition in this country?

SANCHEZ: Well, look. For almost 20 years, Messi has been key to winning countless titles and beating the best teams in the world in Europe, so we know he's world-class and he can lift those around him. But to do it with such a struggling team, it has to say something about the quality of the position here. This isn't basketball. You know, one or two players shouldn't have that much impact. But that extra second or two he now gets on the ball - it's like he's 25 again.

SHAPIRO: And more broadly, soccer is the world's favorite sport. It's been less popular here in the U.S. What might Messi be able to do for the future of the sport in this country?

SANCHEZ: It remains to be seen, but there's certainly high hopes here. In Messi, we have a living legend. You know, he will attract eyeballs. He'll bring more world-class players, and he will raise the level of the game. Meanwhile, the MLS is finally an established league. And we have the Copa America in the U.S. next year. And the sport's biggest showcase, the World Cup, is coming to the U.S. in 2026. So it does seem to be a moment for soccer in the U.S., and the world is paying attention. Likely millions watched Messi score a stunning goal on Saturday in an exciting final and lift the trophy on U.S. soil. What's not to love?

SHAPIRO: That's Matheus Sanchez of WLRN in Miami. Thanks a lot.

SANCHEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICK SHOULDERS' "SURF DE MARDI GRAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Matheus Sanchez