Sergio Busquets isn’t bothered by the south Florida heat. With a wide grin and fresh tan after three days of training under the Fort Lauderdale sun, Busquets laughs when asked about the heat that he’ll experience as an Inter Miami player.
It isn’t a problem, he says. Barcelona has spent several preseason tours in Miami, including last summer. The heat is expected.
The south Florida humidity though, that’s an entirely different obstacle.
“The humidity is different from practically any other place on Earth, especially in Barcelona where I was,” Busquets says. “But we’re adapting to everything with confidence. That makes the process better.”
“We” includes his former Barcelona teammate, seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and recently crowned World Cup winner Lionel Messi, who Inter Miami unveiled alongside Busquets on July 16. With so much attention on Messi, and deservedly so, Busquets has flown slightly under the radar.
Only Messi can overshadow a player like Busquets, winner of 32 trophies with Barcelona and an integral part of the best-ever Spain national team that won the 2010 World Cup and the 2012 European Championship. The Catalan-born 35-year-old is widely regarded as the best holding midfielder the game has produced. He announced his international retirement in December, following the World Cup in Qatar.
Busquets is seated inside a backstage dressing room at the Broward County Performing Arts Center in Fort Lauderdale. In a few minutes he’ll address reporters along with Inter Miami manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who coached Busquets at Barcelona nearly a decade ago. Before this availability, Busquets tells The Athletic about how he and Messi decided on Miami, his view of the U.S., how Martino was treated at Barcelona and more.
It’s the day before Busquets and Messi make their American soccer debut against Mexican side Cruz Azul as part of the newly created Leagues Cup. The tall and lean Busquets is wearing an Inter Miami jacket and jean shorts. He says on numerous occasions how excited he is to be at the club. He had no doubts about coming to Major League Soccer after his European club career ended recently with his ninth La Liga title with Barcelona. But leaving home is always difficult. Busquets says that his emotions about leaving Barcelona are “fine,” but it’s clear that the farewell is still fresh in his mind.
Messi in Miami — read more on The Athletic…
“I’m enjoying everything here because there’s a beginning and an end to everything,” Busquets says. “In this case it was the end of a beautiful chapter at Barcelona, many years of what I was used to, of being home.”
Busquets humbly refers to himself as “a privileged man” for having won so much at a massive club like Barcelona. He also says what all big MLS signings say when they come to America: It’s a new experience and he wants to win trophies with his new club and help the brand grow. But Inter Miami is a project unlike any other in MLS.
Inter Miami co-owner Jorge Mas is both a controversial figure in the league and a visionary with plans to push MLS beyond its current limits. Fellow owner David Beckham, who altered the landscape of American soccer and MLS in particular when he signed for the LA Galaxy 2007, is the club’s globaly famous face, who calls Messi’s signing with Inter Miami “a dream come true.”
Busquets mentions all three owners — Beckham, Jorge Mas and his brother Jose — as the main reasons why chose to come to a three-year-old club that’s currently in last place in MLS.
“This opportunity was my first choice from the very beginning because I understood the vision that Jorge, Jose and David had about this project,” says Busquets. “They made me feel welcomed and when you leave your home, that’s what you want. To feel loved, to feel important, with all of the facilities and everything else that they can offer. It made it much easier for me to make this decision. And on top of that, to be able to be here with former teammates, I’m just so happy to be able to play with them again.”
Sergio Busquets with the Mas brothers and Beckham during “The Unveil” at DRV PNK Stadium on July 16. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
On Thursday, Inter Miami announced the signing of former Barcelona left fullback Jordi Alba. Busquets and Alba, 34, won everything together with Barcelona. Alba recently captained Spain to its first UEFA Nations League title. Another ex-Barcelona teammate Luis Suárez is rumored to be Inter Miami’s next star signing.
The 36-year-old Uruguayan is under contract with Brazilian side Gremio until December of 2024, but Suárez is pushing to end his stint in Brazil earlier. An all-star type reunion in Miami is certainly in the cards, though, and Busquets is anxious for it to happen. However, there isn’t a special career-coordination WhatsApp group between himself, Messi, Alba and Suárez, he says.
“We spoke about it because we’re friends,” Busquets says. “We had conversations about (Inter Miami) every once in a while. Especially with Leo, who was finishing his contract (with Paris Saint-Germain) and who had some doubts about staying in Europe or facing something new away from Europe. I had more clarity. I knew that I wanted to leave Europe.”
To hear Busquets say that Messi was unsure about coming to MLS is noteworthy. And it might explain — at least in part — why Mas and Beckham told reporters that the week leading up to the official announcement had been “a whirlwind.”
Barcelona’s financial situation prevented Messi from a romantic return to the Catalan club. He ultimately turned down a reported $1.6 billion offer from Saudi side Al Hilal and chose to live in Miami. Since arriving stateside, Messi has been seen at a local Miami restaurant and shopping at a supermarket with his family, living like a normal Miami resident.
Busquets is similarly excited about life in Miami. He says that everything about American culture attracts him. He has visited Miami and other U.S. cities several times with his wife and two young children. It wasn’t difficult to convince his family to leave their life in Barcelona.
“It’s a lot easier when it’s a country like the United States and a city like Miami,” Busquets says. “The American lifestyle is a dream for everyone. They do everything big here. Your possibilities are endless. It’s the premier world power. All those things add up and it makes it possible for you to have the very best for yourself and your kids.”
“In the end this is about experiencing something that’s going to enrich our lives, not just my sporting career, but our entire family,” Busquets continues. “We’re happy and looking forward to settling here as soon as possible because change can be a bit stressful at the start, but we’re really happy. I’m able to be at Inter Miami with former teammates. That made everything really attractive for me.”
Busquets, Messi and Jordi Alba have joined Martino in Miami. The 60-year-old Martino is leading the club’s transformation on the pitch after previously coaching Barcelona for one season in 2013-14. In the years since, Martino again worked with Messi at the international level with Argentina, won an MLS Cup with Atlanta United and experienced a difficult spell with Mexico’s national team. Martino was hired in late June after former Miami head coach and close Beckham confidant Phil Neville was fired. Busquets says that seeing Martino again has been positive.
“To be able to reunite with him after so many years — a coach that I already played under makes all of this more special,” says Busquets. “I’m very happy that he’s here because I understand his philosophy and his staff’s football ideas for this team. We’re happy to work with (Martino) again. He’s been great. He looks more relaxed. I’m sure that having been at Atlanta (United) before gives him that confidence of understanding the league, the competition. That’s very positive because he has communicated that wisdom, that positive energy that perhaps this team needed.”
Martino’s title-winning campaign with Atlanta United in 2018 today puts him among the league’s most respected coaches. His return to the league was seen as a boon. His enthusiasm to do so was never in doubt.
“MLS is my weakness,” Martino told The Athletic in April. “After coaching in MLS, I became attracted to it. I like the league. The possibility of returning to MLS is always there.”
Scrutiny in MLS, both on coaches and players, pales in comparison to how the sport is covered around the world. During his lone season with Barcelona, Martino was heavily criticized by the Spanish press for his tactics, squad rotation policy, and of course, results.
With Messi, Busquets, Alba, and Neymar, Barcelona lost a La Liga title on the final day of the season to Atletico Madrid. They were dumped from the UEFA Champions League in the quarterfinals by that same Atletico Madrid side and then lost the Copa del Rey to rivals Real Madrid. Yet, that Barcelona side finished with 87 points. Champions Atletico Madrid earned a whopping 90 points. Barcelona won La Liga in 2023 with a total of 88 points.
Martino’s hire in the summer of 2013 surprised the football world. Martino wasn’t supposed to coach Barcelona. He was an emergency hire. Former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola left the club to coach German giants Bayern Munich.
Guardiola was succeeded by chief assistant Tito Vilanova, the former Barcelona B player who had a very close relationship with the Barça players. Vilanova immediately won La Liga during the 2012-2013 season, but shortly thereafter was diagnosed with throat cancer. He passed away in April of 2014.
Martino later admitted that his one year in Barcelona was a failure. He resigned in front of reporters after Barcelona’s final match of the season. Throughout that difficult campaign, much was made of Messi’s influence to appoint his countryman Martino, and of their relationship. When asked if the Spanish press had been too harsh with Martino, Busquets answered candidly.
“I think so, yes, absolutely. When you’re at such a big club like Barcelona there’s so much pressure,” says Busquets. “There’s a lot of noise that comes from the media.”
Busquets, with a hint of heartache in his voice, recalled the heavy loss the team suffered with Vilanova’s illness and passing, and the near impossible task that Martino was afforded.
“We had undergone a very difficult transition for everyone,” Busquets says. “We had Tito (Vilanova) and then we lost him. We worked under two different coaching staffs. For the players, for Tata and his staff, it was a bit unpleasant and that left its mark on that season. But I have very fond memories of Tata and I’m really happy to meet up with him again. Hopefully we win big things together.”
They got off to a cinematic start on Friday, when Messi and Busquets made their Inter Miami debuts together during the club’s opening match of the inaugural Leagues Cup. Messi was very clearly the main attraction. LeBron James, Serena Williams, Sergio Aguero, Marc Anthony and Kim Kardashian were among the celebrities in attendance for that historic moment.
The stadium erupted when Messi replaced 18-year-old Benjamin Cremaschi in the 54th minute. Busquets followed Messi onto the pitch, and the two immediately connected like they had as teammates with those great Barcelona teams. Busquets’ first pass to Messi came after the 35-year-old midfielder froze Cruz Azul’s Carlos Rodríguez with his trademark drag-back move.
With his back to goal deep inside his own half, Busquets received the ball from Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender. Busquets turned to face Rodríguez, who approached quickly, then pulled the ball back with the sole of his right foot, tapped it forward to keep Rodríguez moving to his right before using a heavy body feint to dupe Rodríguez and change direction.
Busquets finished the match with a 94 percent pass accuracy (30/32) from 34 touches. He created two chances and made six passes into the final third. Fourteen of Busquets’ passes went to Messi, who scored a spectacular game-winning free kick in the 93rd minute.
Busquets, Messi, Alba and Martino and whoever else joins them in Miami will have to show that they can rekindle their magic together over the coming months and years, but for now, Busquets is simply enjoying the moment.
“I’m very motivated to begin something new, which for me will be new in all aspects — from a sporting and family perspective,” Busquets says. “I’m really happy about all of this. One has to value everything as it comes.”
(Photo: CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
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