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Ahead of Messi, how stars like Ronaldo Zlatan were unveiled

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It’s the moment fans can dare to dream, before hopeful expectation gives way to the reality of competition. A football club’s new signing is presented in front of an excitable crowd. Balls are juggled, badges are kissed and a few words are said.

Then it’s off to preseason training, to prepare to deliver on the pitch.

On Sunday, the eyes of the world will be on Inter Miami CF’s DRV PNK stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, as Lionel Messi is introduced as the most anticipated new arrival in MLS history. Miami have spent weeks planning the presentation of the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, after three years of negotiations saw them beat Barcelona and Saudi Arabian clubs to land the world’s most famous — and for many, greatest ever — footballer.

Now the world’s media has descended on South Florida to cover what the club is dramatically calling “The Unveil.” It’s the first step in a new era for MLS, and a chance for both Inter Miami and the league to reach a potential vast new fan base among Messi obsessives in Argentina and around the world.

Messi’s Miami unveiling is just the latest example of a club looking to turn a new signing into a must-see news event. From Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid in 2009, to Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Paris Saint-Germain in 2012, and more recently, Karim Benzema at Al Ittihad, an attention-grabbing player presentation is an opportunity for clubs to sell themselves, and their vision for the future, to a global audience.

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Real’s raucous crowd surprised even Ronaldo

When you’re talking about Messi, the comparison with Ronaldo, warranted or not, is never far away. The superstar forward’s move from Manchester United to Real Madrid in 2009, for a then-world record €‎100 million, set the bar for blockbuster player presentations in the modern era. More than 85,000 fans — some reports put the figure closer to 90,000 — filled the Santiago Bernabeu on July 6, 2009.

The stadium’s doors opened at 7pm local time, but some fans had queued in the Madrid summer heat since midday to ensure they got a seat. Thousands were turned away when the doors were closed shortly before the event’s 9pm start.

“The anticipation was so high,” Reshmin Chowdhury — then a reporter for Real Madrid TV, tasked with conducting Ronaldo’s first sit-down interview on the day — tells ESPN. “This was a world-record signing, probably the biggest player in the world at that time. … But because we’d just had the Kaka presentation, and that was quite big, it was hard to gauge just how enormous it would be.

“It ended up being bigger than I ever thought possible, and I thought Kaka’s was huge.”

Kaka’s presentation had drawn a crowd of 50,000 to the Bernabeu a week earlier, and was reported by the Madrid media at the time as being the second-biggest player unveiling ever, after Diego Maradona’s in Napoli in 1984. But Ronaldo’s was on another level. Madrid great Alfredo Di Stefano and Portugal icon Eusebio joined club president Florentino Perez in welcoming Ronaldo.

The only snag: the player’s preferred No. 7 shirt was occupied by another legend, Raul Gonzalez, so he had to take the No. 9.

“The moment has arrived,” Perez said, as the crowd roared their approval. “Today we welcome Cristiano Ronaldo to his new home.”

Speaking decent Spanish, albeit with a strong Portuguese accent, Ronaldo was savouring the moment.

“I’m very happy to be here,” he said, pausing to take it all. “I didn’t expect the stadium to be full, just to see me.”

“The crowd, the noise, you knew you were part of something huge,” Chowdhury tells ESPN. “It’s weird to say, because it wasn’t a live game, but you knew you were part of something huge. You were buzzing. All of us were… There was nothing on the line, it wasn’t a game with all those emotions, it was just a high the whole way through.”

Ibrahimovic, Benzema show clubs’ ambition

While some player presentations require a significant amount of planning and organisation — Ronaldo’s required the same level of security and policing that you would see at a regular LaLiga game — others are more improvised and off-the-cuff.

The visual impact of Paris Saint-Germain’s unveiling of Zlatan Ibrahimovic on July 18, 2012, with the Eiffel Tower as a spectacular backdrop, was achieved in part by the decision not to notify local authorities, fans or the media until the last minute. That meant the player could be hurried straight from his introductory news conference at the Parc des Princes to a street-level photoshoot overlooking the Eiffel Tower, before an unmanageable crowd of onlookers had time to form.

“I got on a scooter with my assistant [after the news conference] and rushed to the [Place du] Trocadero,” PSG’s former marketing director Michel Mimran told L’Equipe. “I was ten minutes early. I don’t even have a piece of chalk, but I saw a line on the ground and I said to myself: ‘[Zlatan] will be there, and the journalists will be there.’ We were still looking at the ground when all of a sudden, the cars stopped and Zlatan got out.”

The iconic images that followed helped create the desired impression: that PSG were a rising footballing superpower, capable of attracting the very best players. The same thinking was behind Al Ittihad’s presentation of Karim Benzema last month, after his surprise departure from Real Madrid.

The Saudi Pro League wants to be taken seriously as a contender on the world stage. The club made that clear message by introducing Benzema in front of 60,000 fans at the King Abdullah Sports City stadium in Jeddah, complete with a light show, fireworks, and the unboxing of his Ballon d’Or trophy.

Make it magical, literally

It’s not all about size, though. Spend any time discussing player presentations with fans of Spanish football and one example will inevitably come up: remember that time Villarreal made Santi Cazorla appear, as if by magic, in the middle of the pitch?

“We started to think about ideas,” Villarreal’s head of communications Hernan Sanz tells ESPN, discussing Cazorla’s return to the club — after suffering a career-threatening injury at Arsenal — in 2018. “A lot of people here called [Cazorla] ‘The Magician’ because of his quality, his vision, his passing. … It occurred to us that one of the world’s best magicians, El Mago Yunke, is from a town near here.

“We decided to contact him to see if he was available. We proposed the idea, and he loved it. Santi liked it too. The magician already had a trick as a part of his shows where he’d fill a capsule with smoke, and somebody would appear inside.

“We went with Santi to his workshop. We had a whole day of rehearsals, and the magician was with Santi, explaining how it would work. Who better than a magician to present the magician?”

The stakes were high. With a crowd of thousands watching inside Villarreal’s La Ceramica stadium — fans had been told to expect an event including a magic show, but Cazorla’s role was a secret — there was no margin for error.

“[Santi] was rehearsing for hours,” Sanz tells ESPN. “It wasn’t just ‘a photo and I’m off.’ It was an entire day. … I don’t remember exactly how long it was, but he had to spend over an hour inside that box!

“We had to make sure that it went well. Imagine if you have this great idea, and it goes wrong. You can’t go back into the box and try again! We had to rehearse for hours, practising the movements, because we had one chance to get it right.”

The result was the perfect viral video clip: a unique, eccentric moment which fitted the player’s image as an easy-going entertainer. It found an audience far beyond fans of Villarreal or LaLiga.

“If you can make [the presentation] transcend your own fan base and go viral, that’s the ideal scenario,” Sanz tells ESPN. “But that’s very difficult. Not every player has the same impact as Santi Cazorla, a club legend, coming back from injury.

“The first target is to connect with your fans. As a second step, if it can go viral, that’s perfect. But that can only happen with special players. Let’s say a club signs five players a year. You aren’t going to do five spectacular presentations. It would get a bit repetitive.”


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