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Messi to MLS: Miami’s superfans, stars ready for new icon

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MIAMI — The drive from Little Havana to South Beach captures the broad range of Miami’s topographical landscape. Here I am on the elevated highway, like millions of frustrated Miamians during rush hour, as the MacArthur Causeway guides me over the city’s districts.

From Brickell to the neighborhood of Overtown, I pass old and new construction sites. Luxury buildings sit above the water. Eventually, I reach Miami Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. In the skies, a combination of weather patterns dance together, completely contradicting each other’s status. On one side, a storm is brewing, and on the other, clear blue skies. A contradiction. That’s Miami.

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Back on the highway and I suddenly jump from my seat as I hear a scream from the driver’s seat. “Look!” says Alejandro, the Colombian Uber driver, pointing toward the billboard with childlike giddiness. “There he is!” Indeed. There he is. Lionel Messi — Inter Miami’s (and Major League Soccer’s) record signing — in all his glory, with black and pink enriching the poster, welcoming him to South Florida.

“Bienvenido Leo,” says Alejandro, greeting the billboard as if he were talking about a family member coming to stay. In a way, he’s not wrong.

The billboard is one of many symbols of hospitality for the Argentinian World Cup champion that adorn Miami. All over the city and toward Fort Lauderdale (where his new club’s DRV PNK stadium is located), signs and murals have been surfacing since the announcement. Just this week, David Beckham joined Argentinian artist Maximiliano Bagnasco to complete his own work of art in the artistic district of Wynwood, where most of the public art work is based.

My favorite one, however, is by Venezuelan artist Arlex Campos. The mural, also in Wynwood, is a festival of pink where Messi stares with confidence, as his Argentina shirt melts into the Inter Miami kit. It’s a beautiful design and a majestic example of the story as Messi, a South American star — the biggest of them all — comes to Miami: the Latin American capital of the world.

“This was the first mural with Messi wearing the Inter Miami shirt,” says Campos, who has been a resident of Miami since 2016 and has been painting athletes throughout his career, notably players from Venezuela. “It was a hard, intense week in order to make it happen. We painted it in three days. Now? The mural has had an incredible reception with global recognition. The ultimate dream would be to have him come to the mural and see it for himself.”

The murals are a triumphant testament of Messi’s arrival but they are also representative of Miamians. It’s their stories that paint the colors of Miami’s multicultural mosaic. Latin Americans (more than 70% of Miami residents are of Latin American origin) and some big personalities explain to the world that Messi’s arrival isn’t just about futbol. It’s also about them and their city.

“I cannot overemphasize the magnitude of this announcement,” said Jorge Mas, the club’s managing president and native Miamian who dealt directly with Jorge Messi and the Messi family starting in 2020 in order to get this monumental deal done — from a commercial and sporting aspect — and lure him to South Florida. “It’s been global in nature, it’s been extremely significant for the club and for football in this country. Lionel Messi is coming to this country to win. I think there will always be a before and after Messi when we talk about the sport in the United States.”

Messi’s arrival to Miami is a commercial, footballing mountain of an opportunity for America. We have already seen the numbers. Since the news in June, Inter Miami’s social media and digital presence has hit ridiculous numbers. Its Instagram account, for example, grew by 750% since the announcement on June 7. As I write this, the account has 8.6 million followers, the fifth most in American sports behind the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. Not a football has been kicked by the Argentine and the snowball effect keeps growing.

“He’s going to generate so much awareness. Not only here but around the world,” says Andres Cantor, the legendary Spanish-speaking play-by-play commentator who is busy preparing for the Women’s World Cup.

If you’re a Spanish-speaking fan in America, Cantor is synonymous with significant moments in modern football history. He called Messi’s World Cup victory last December in Qatar and as an Argentinian, the feeling was poetically memorable for Cantor.

“Since the announcement of him coming here, I think I have given no less than 40 interviews all over the world, and I found out that many people do not have any idea about MLS, and how they will be able to watch him. So this means that the league, U.S. soccer in general and MLS in particular, is going to suddenly have a worldwide appeal because they have the best player in the world.

“I always give the same example. I have never seen PSG on a regular basis, but in the last two years, I watched PSG as I watched him in Barcelona every Sunday. So if the true fan wants to see Messi, they’re going to start watching MLS and Inter Miami.”

Is the club ready, truly ready, for Messi’s arrival and debut, which is scheduled to be July 21 against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup? “I know the club is working day and night in the communications department, front office, everyone that is involved. If they’re ready or not, I have no idea,” Cantor says.

Regardless of the meticulous preparations, we are talking about Messi, so truthfully, when it comes to one of the most popular human beings in the world, how ready can you truly be?

“Last time he was here for the Argentina game (the friendly against Honduras) at Hard Rock Stadium (home of the Miami Dolphins), we were here working for the training sessions and I was guarding the gate,” says Bobby Lewis, a security guard at Inter Miami’s stadium. “And we saw people climbing palm trees screaming, ‘Messi! Messi!’ And I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?'”

Lewis is anticipating a packed and overwhelming situation at DRV PNK stadium, a ground built on the same site as the old Lockhart Stadium. The stadium has a deep history with Florida ssoccer, where the Fort Lauderdale Strikers from the NASL and MLS’s Miami Fusion played before folding in 2002. Messi’s arrival — both for the unveiling and the debut — will be a massive moment for the site, and one Lewis wants to fully be part of.

The stadium is an open-style design, the Fort Lauderdale skyline looming in the distance, with an allocation of 18,000 seats, but the aim is to add 3,200 more. Aside from the seating, there are other factors to take into consideration, such as transportation (DRV PNK is on open land with a slightly congested entrance to and from the parking lots), but most importantly, making sure pitch invaders don’t enter the field, something that is easy to do at DRV PNK. “I want to be one of the guys who tackles the invader when it happens!” Lewis says.

This week, since new Inter Miami coach Tata Martino’s first training session, the club has already been altering security measures for open training sessions. Media that report during the training sessions require wristbands and metal detector wands are abundantly present. Little by little, the club is getting ready for Messi.

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From a footballing perspective, Inter Miami fans are brimming with excitement as they await his official unveiling, seeing the potential of what this move means for the region. “I think the league is going to grow and I hope for the club and MLS to grow like Europe or South America,” says Laura Lopez, a Colombian now residing in Pembroke Pines. Lopez is also a member of Vice City 1896, an official supporters’ group with deep Latin American roots. The group is a major voice in the club’s identity and alongside other supporters groups, it provides the spark inside the stadium’s atmosphere.

“I hope we also use this opportunity to embrace South Florida,” says Akeem Osei aka Kalypso, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, now residing in the U.S and also a Vice City member. “Everybody loves to come here to vacation, party and enjoy the weather. So let’s use that too as a marketing tactic. We’re not like anywhere else in the country, so that’s what makes us special here.”

Inter Miami fans also know they have a lot to do in the standings. The club has not won a league game since May 13, extending its winless streak to 10 matches as it sits bottom of the Eastern Conference. While optimism circles around what Messi — and former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and reportedly Jordi Alba — can offer in terms of transforming their chances of success, some fans are wary of how quickly Messi can single-handedly change their fortunes.

“To be completely honest, I don’t know if MLS or Inter Miami are completely ready for what the Messi effect is,” says Luis Becerra, another Vice City supporter and founding member of the club. “The abundance of people that have never set foot in the stadium. They probably didn’t even know we had a team. Being born and raised in Miami, I know that being a bandwagon fan is something that’s unfortunately true to our culture, but here? The more the merrier. We welcome everybody who is coming here because of Messi, but players come and go, coaches and staff come and go. La Familia, everybody that makes up the North Stand and the rest of that stadium will stay, and that’s the message. We welcome everybody, but make sure to stick around after he leaves.”

Miami is a proverbial collage of personalities, from athletes to chefs, artists and dreamers, working-class immigrants and influential magnates. They are poets and musicians, teachers and students, hospitality workers and internationals from across the world. Some are escapists or occasional drifters, some stay forever, others leave a temporary mark. All of them, for better or worse and in one way or another, represent Miami and like its tropical, temperamental weather — Miamians are unpredictable.

In Miami, you are yourself but you also play a character, living in a reality that sometimes feels like a fantasy, or vice versa. The city has a complex, rich and flawed texture of people and for Messi, who is somewhat of an introvert but living in a constant state of fame, it will be interesting to see how much he allows himself and his family to expose themselves to Miami’s offerings. Sure, he visits here frequently as the Messi empire owns multiple properties in the region, but to live here, to fully call this home, is something completely different.

“[Messi] said no to crazy money, you know why? Because Miami is the greatest city in the world,” says David Grutman, an entrepreneur, owner of several Miami-based restaurants and establishments and one of the most well-known Miami residents. If there was a label for Mr. Miami, it would go to Grutman.

“When they made the big announcement, the city went crazy. I could kind of relate to when LeBron James said, ‘I’m taking my talents to South Beach,’ but that’s the only thing I’ve seen as close to this as possible or when David Beckham announced that the team was coming to Miami. We’ve had a couple of insane things but this is everything. Miami has already gone through a renaissance so this is now a stamp of approval that we’re the one.”

Grutman is aware of Messi and wife Antonela Roccuzzo’s need for privacy, specifically for the sake of their children, but that’s not going to stop his quest and hopeful next venture. “I’m definitely looking into opening an Argentinian steakhouse!” Grutman says. “We’re on it right now. Whatever we can do! He’s going to be a long-ball player here so we might as well make him happy!”

What will this new restaurant be named? La Pulga? La Casa de Leo? “I’ll call it whatever he likes as long as he’s coming!” Grutman says.

The lifestyle aspect is an intriguing one to contemplate. Miami is a mecca for multiculturalism and the nucleus of Latin America in the U.S. For Argentinians in particular, it is a home away from home and neighborhoods such as Little Buenos Aires have provided a hub for businesses to grow. In fact, on Wednesday night, Messi and family dined at Prima Pasta in that neighborhood. After leaving, they were greeted by a group of fans filled with Argentinians, calling him the best in the world as Messi signed a Newell’s Old Boys shirt (his boyhood club).

From La Parrilla Liberty restaurant (a shrine to Argentina and Messi) on South Beach to Buenos Aires Bakery and Cafe to the north, these shops and eateries bring people together from across the city. About 300,000 Argentinians live in the U.S., with more than one-third of that number residing in the Miami-Dade and Fort Lauderdale areas, per Pew Research. So when you walk around these quarters, you transport yourself to Argentina and South America. Messi and his family should feel at home.

Don’t expect him, however, to live in an area where there is a need for attention. He will most likely be in Key Biscayne or somewhat of a secluded suburban area where his sons (Thiago, Mateo and Ciro) can have space and be themselves.

“I would love to get Messi’s credit card,” jokes Galey Alix, the designer, Wall Street executive and host of Max’s “Home in a Heartbeat with Galey Alix,” where Alix creates home renovations in the space of a few days and surprises amazed homeowners. Alix resides in Fort Lauderdale so for her, Messi’s move to Miami is appealing in more ways than one.

“I do surprise reveals only so I don’t tell the family what I am doing. I get their credit card and they move out for the weekend and they come back on Sunday and their house is redone. So I’d love to get his credit card but I think I would have to become close friends with Antonela first. So at this point, I would be willing to do a nonsurprise reveal to them.”

As a financial expert, Alix is also intrigued by the contract and how Messi’s deal reportedly includes a certain cut of Apple’s MLS season pass as well as a cut of Adidas sales. “Let’s just talk about the fact that it’s an amazing move for Adidas, right?” Alix says. “They took one on the chin with the Kanye debacle, and now they’ve kind of got this windfall with Messi coming. I mean, this is huge for them. As far as the deal itself with the club goes, I don’t think that we know.

“In fact, I think his advisers are still working out the deal on what percent he would get from Inter Miami and that’ll be interesting to see, right? Because I can’t imagine that the club offered Messi 7 or 8% of their club when he just turned down a $1.6 billion deal from Saudi Arabia. He might end up owning more than Beckham does, which wouldn’t surprise me. But, as far as I know, is it a good deal? If I’m strictly looking at numbers, I think it’ll be hard for him to outpace a 3-year, $1.6 billion deal with Saudi Arabia that he turned down to be here because he could have done that for three years and then come here. But clearly he’s not about the money.”

Meanwhile, Ashley Nicole Moss, a well-known sports host and presenter who calls Miami (and New York) her home, agrees with Alix and if it’s not about the money, Messi’s arrival is about the challenge, but it’s also about embracing everything the city has to offer. So what’s a piece of advice for the Argentine star?

“Honestly, absorb the culture, and I think Miami is special, because there’s so much culture here in this little pocket of the U.S.,” says Moss, who also feels this city has earned its right to have Messi. “When you open yourself up to it, Miami is dope, and I think it’s only getting better and I’m glad it’s getting its moment in the spotlight because it deserves it.”

Miami is a sporting city, full of athletic prowess and recognition. How will Messi fit in this world where soccer is not alone, and most emphatically, what is the overall reaction from other franchises and their athletes?

“[Messi’s arrival] is super exciting. I feel like he’s the best footballer to ever step on the pitch, ” says Josh Richardson, an eight-year NBA shooting guard who returned to Miami Heat this month as a free agent, having started his professional career with the team in 2015. Richardson is also a passionate soccer and Messi fan. “For someone of that stature to come to MLS is going to change the whole landscape of the league, and just for the city of Miami — being one of the biggest football cities in the United States — it’s going to be huge. It’s really exciting for me because I am a huge football fan so I’ll be at the games hopefully.”

From athlete to athlete, and someone who knows the city well, is there any advice Richardson would dare offer Messi? “Honestly? Just come watch the Heat play basketball! He can have a good night,” he says.

The tug of war for his attention might be a big challenge as Jaelan Phillips — a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins — is also doing everything he can to make sure Messi and the family attend a Dolphins game in the upcoming NFL season.

“It’s not about if I would like him there; it’s a necessity,” says Phillips, who will also pay more attention to MLS thanks to Messi’s arrival. “We need to have him there, everybody coming out to support the Dolphins this season. I have talked to some of my teammates too and everyone’s super excited to see him come down here and go out and watch some games. I will absolutely be at some games as well to watch him play. I’m already walking around Miami and there are so many Inter Miami jerseys with Messi on the back. So being able to go up there and see the environment, especially now that he’s there, is going to be really cool.”

This interest, however, doesn’t end with professional players.

“When I think of the move in general, I’m 40 years old, and this is one of the most monumental things to happen to American sports since I’ve been alive,” says Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, who sees this transfer as a herculean moment in American sports.

“This is the Michael Jordan of soccer and probably the best athlete in the world that has played with unbelievable worldwide pressure. He represents so many cool things about sports — you talk about deliberate practice and owning skills of a game, this dude is undersized and has always had to prove himself. In doing that, he became arguably one of the best players in the world but then he still had the caveat of not winning the big one. That was never going to go away, it always was an asterisk and everyone knew it. So, what he did and what that Argentina team did in the last World Cup is as moving to me as anything that’s happened.

“He is an industry changer. For him to come to Miami feels like something that every South Floridian can really embrace for what the time is now. Collectively, I think it impacts all of the sports teams in South Florida. Kudos to those who had been working behind the scenes on this. It came out of nowhere to the rest of us — it was like Christmas morning. What a gift to the American sports fanbase.”

When Messi steps on the pitch at DRV PNK stadium for the first time, it could feel like an existential moment for Inter Miami fans, the league and every single soccer fan in America. It will be cathartic for those who worked so hard on making it happen, and poetic for those who are there to bear witness. South Florida’s sticky air will carry the energized voices of every fan calling out his name as he walks in blinding pink. “Messi, Messi, Messi,” they’ll say with exhausted, albeit relentless, breath. Sure, we have heard these chants before over and over again. From Barcelona and PSG to the World Cup final with Argentina.

This time, however, it will be different because in their distinct, rich, quintessential style, these chants are made only in Miami. A town Messi now calls home.


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