Can Messi and Co. live up to high expectations? And the lessons from Henderson’s tragic Saudi move

Welcome to Onside/Offside! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed, what to keep an eye on in the coming days and, of course, certain things that probably deserved extra love and criticism.

This week, it’s the return of Lionel Messi and Inter Miami as they begin their Taylor Swift-esque global tour, Ivan Toney’s redemption, Jordan Henderson’s awkward exit from the Saudi Pro League and much more!

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When Lionel Messi arrived in South Florida in June, Inter Miami and MLS embarked on the mission of introducing the Argentinian World Cup winner to the American stage. It couldn’t have gone any better, as the timing was perfect. There were low expectations of what the club could achieve given their poor run of results, even with Messi’s arrival. A few weeks later, they were Leagues Cup champions, Messi’s name was everywhere and the club had stimulated not just a fan base but an entire country.

Fast forward to the present, and there are clear expectations and objectives. Messi — alongside Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and his other teammates — should be feeling refreshed after a long break. Manager Tata Martino has a revamped squad, mainly thanks to key arrivals, such as Julian Gressel and the biggest name thus far during this offseason: Luis Suárez.

With all these reinforcements and a higher bar for success, the added requirements of globalizing Inter Miami are essential because after all, this is not just a football club, it’s a business. Inter Miami’s preseason is similar to a musical global tour — like Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” concerts — as Messi’s team will play a total of seven matches (maybe more) and only two of them will be in the U.S.

As you read this, the club is in El Salvador ready to play the national team at Estadio Cuscatlán in the capital. A few days later, they’ll be at the Cotton Bowl in Texas where they’ll face FC Dallas before heading off to Saudi Arabia for games against Al Hilal and the money-making clash against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in Riyadh. Following those extravagant stops, the Herons will fly to Hong Kong to face their all-star XI and then Tokyo for a match against J1 League champions Vissel Kobe. Barcelona and Spain legend Andrés Iniesta, who played for the Japanese club, will be present.

And they’re not done. Once that trip is concluded, Inter Miami will return to Ft. Lauderdale for one final preseason match, an emotional encounter against Messi’s (and Martino’s) first love: Newell’s Old Boys.

This is a massive tour, and it’s important for the club to maximize the marketing potential of Messi and his teammates, but for Martino, his biggest priority will be the need to balance their minutes. But in the end, all these stadiums fill up for one reason and one reason only: Lionel Messi. So the question will be how much of him will they see during this global preseason tour?

Oh, fun fact: On the same day that Inter Miami plays Vissel Kobe (Feb. 7), Taylor Swift will perform as part of her tour. What a day in Japan.

He has paid his dues. He has served his punishment and is working on his rehabilitation. Now let the man cook.

After serving an eight-month ban due to breaching FA’s betting rules, Toney is back, and I have no doubt he will be out on a mission to make up for lost time. The question, however, will be whether he remains at Brentford or if there will be another club that can afford the heavy fee he demands because of his remarkable record (32 goals in 68 appearances) as a striker in the Premier League.

“You can never predict when is the right time to move elsewhere, but I think it’s obvious I want to play for a top club,” Toney said. “Everybody wants to play for a top club that is fighting for titles. Whether it’s this January that is the right time for a club to come in and pay the right money, who knows?”

Who knows, indeed.

Arsenal, a club with talented but no discernible 20-plus goal scorers, seems like the perfect place for him, but they can’t afford him. Then there’s the loyalty component as Brentford stood by him and his family during this difficult time, especially when he couldn’t train or make contact with the club for the first four months of his ban.

Should the England striker stick with the club that stood by him throughout this nightmare?

Toney, who is also looking for a spot in the England squad for this summer’s Euros, could feature this weekend against Nottingham Forest, and I’m confident that if he comes on, he’ll score.

Back in September, Jordan Henderson said his controversial move to Saudi Arabia and Al Ettifaq could be seen as a positive thing, despite the vociferous criticism from the LGBTQIA+ community given the country’s poor human rights record, including laws that state homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. He denied that money was the main driver and said that a reunion with Steven Gerrard and an opportunity to embrace a new challenge were the deciding factors.

He denied that he was earning £700,000 a week. Six months after his transfer, Henderson will move to the Netherlands with Ajax, and according to reports, he won’t see a penny from his Al Ettifaq payments after deferring wages for tax reasons in the United Kingdom. Most notably, however, his reputation as a defender for LGBTQIA+ rights and equality has been tarnished.

In the end, this story ended up as a great lesson in public relations and how the words of Warren Buffett have never resonated as much as right now: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.”

Henderson, who had an impeccable reputation before leaving for Saudi Arabia, has done a lot for many communities in his career. During the pandemic, the England international created and led an initiative with other Premier League captains to raise money to help NHS workers, and he has constantly spoken out on inclusivity and queer representation in the men’s game.

But the move to Saudi Arabia damaged his reputation. Does Henderson deserve to be castigated for the rest of his career and suffer public condemnation as a result of his hypocrisy? No. But I hope this situation has taught him — and other players — a lesson that it’s better to be honest than create some ideal public image.

If Henderson had said, “Listen, I need to take care of my family, and the money being offered to me is too good to turn down. I know. It’s hypocritical. But what would you do in my situation? Are we all perfect? No. So please, just know that in the end, I am doing what’s best for me and my family,” would there have been backlash? Of course. And rightly so. But at least people would have known the truth.

There is still time for Henderson to fix this, to come out and admit he made a mistake. He might not be forgiven, but at the very least we would have an honest statement, and after that, the public could build a new ground of respect.

Finally, as we hear reports that other players are looking to leave Saudi Arabia, including Karim Benzema, Henderson’s exit story might not be the only one that we get this month. The Saudi Pro League and the players who left for its alluring contract offers are learning a valuable lesson. In order to build a successful project, the most important factor is to have an understanding of what the project actually represents.

Earlier this week, Everton (who had already suffered a 10-point deduction in November due to their 2021-22 breach) and Nottingham Forest were charged with alleged breaches of the Premier League’s profit and sustainability regulations during the 2022-23 season. Consequently, they were referred to an independent commission and now may face fines and, yes, point deductions.

Once this news came out, social media was full of hasty reaction with people asking, “How are Everton and Forest getting charged while Man City continue to suffer zero consequences?”

This is where clarity is needed as Everton and Forest accepted their punishment (but not without a case to defend their point). Both clubs knew the set of financial guidelines voted on by the league’s clubs, while Man City continue to deny any wrongdoing in regards to their 115 alleged breaches to not just the Premier League but UEFA as well.

This is a massive case where the club has and will spend a lot of money on attorneys and any kind of legal loophole in order to impede the process. It is not the same situation. Yes, it’s frustrating to not see an outcome from the Man City situation, but this is the reality. One is a simpler issue, the other is a labyrinth.

AFCON has been FUN! Here’s my favorite moment so far, when Equatorial Guinea’s Emilio Nsue scored a historic hat-trick against Guinea-Bissau, and at 34 years old and 110 days, becoming the oldest player in tournament history to do so. It was also the first hat-trick in AFCON since 2008. But the celebration? That’s the real winner here.

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