The number eyeballs that Lionel Messi has drawn to Inter Miami is startling.
On the day that his signing was announced, the MLS franchise had a meagre tally of 900,000 Instagram followers. Inter Miami now boast more than 15 million; only three American sports franchises can lay claim to a larger fanbase on the same platform.
It's clear that the vast majority of Miami's newly swollen support (94% based on the Instagram figures) is chiefly interested in Messi.
However, the 36-year-old has been forced to sit out Miami's last three matches through injury, prompting fears that fans won't get to see Messi in action for the rest of the Major League Soccer season.
Miami have been unhelpfully vague regarding the severity of Messi's injury - it would not help sales for the final slate of fixtures if fans knew that there was no chance of seeing the legendary World Cup winner.
Here's everything you need to know about Messi's injury and his chances of reappearing in 2023.
When does the MLS season end?
Unlike most of its European counterparts, the MLS season is contained within a single calendar year. After a 1-1 draw with New York City FC at the end of September, which Messi watched from the stands of Inter's DRV PNK Stadium, Miami are only guaranteed to play four more games this season.
Inter Miami's MLS fixtures
Date / Kick-off time (UK)
05/10/23 - 01:30
Chicago vs Inter Miami
08/10/23 - 00:30
Inter Miami vs Cincinnati
19/10/23 - 01:00
Inter Miami vs Charlotte
21/10/23 - 23:00
Charlotte vs Inter Miami
Despite the draw against NYCFC, which was salvaged in the 95th minute by Tomas Aviles, Miami still maintain a slender chance of reaching the MLS play-offs.
The post-season knockout tournament to decide the winners of the MLS Cup will be held between 25 October and 9 December. The top nine teams from each conference qualify but Miami head into the final month of the regular season sitting 13th in the East, four points behind Montreal in the final play-off berth.
With Messi fit and firing, Miami would back themselves to scramble into a wildcard slot. Yet, the Argentine is very far from a perfect picture of health.
What injury does Lionel Messi have?
In a bid to avoid fan backlash over soaring ticket prices, Messi's fitness status has been cocooned in layers of vagary.
The first flickers of discontent regarding Messi's well-being were flagged during a World Cup qualifier for Argentina in September. After stuffing a free-kick into the top corner against Ecuador, Messi was removed in the closing stages. Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni explained that his captain had requested the substitution, brushing it off as a case of fatigue.
Messi travelled into the clouds for Argentina's qualifier against Bolivia four days later but didn't make the squad, watching on from the bench under the official title of 'assistant coach'.
Inter Miami manager Tata Martino kept up the line of tiredness to explain why Messi didn't travel to Georgia for the team's 5-2 loss to Atlanta United that same week. Atlanta’s official X account celebrated the win with a post which read: "Tell 'em to bring the whole squad next time."
Messi started Miami's subsequent match against FC Toronto but pulled up after 37 minutes with what Martino described as "a scar from an old injury."
Martino was quick to emphatically refute reports that Messi had suffered a hamstring tear, instead reiterating that his captain is struggling with a nagging muscular issue in his leg.
When will Lionel Messi play for Inter Miami again?
"He's doing better and better," Martino said after Miami's draw with NYCFC on Saturday. Although he warned: "We are not going to take any risks."
Messi has returned to the training pitches on South Beach but is yet to be reintegrated with the squad.
Martino reassured fans that Messi "will surely play before the end of the season" after Miami's defeat in the US Open Cup final in the last week of September but was cagey about an exact return date. "We're going to see this game to game," the manager repeated.
Sources close to 90min confirm the player is also expected to see some time against FC Cincinnati on Saturday before jetting off to join Argentina in the October FIFA international window. Gaston Edul also reported the World Cup champion will be ready to train with the national team on October 8 and 9.
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