Messi in Miami: A thriving football scene readies for the ‘GOAT’

Inter Miami supporters say football culture is burgeoning in South Florida and will ‘explode’ with Messi’s arrival.

A mural of Messi in a pink shirt
A mural of Lionel Messi in Miami's Wynwood neighbourhood [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Miami, Florida – A mural of Lionel Messi has greeted guests as they walk into Fiorito Argentinian restaurant for years, long before the World Cup winner’s decision to play for Inter Miami.

But on a chalkboard that hangs outside the eatery’s entrance, a new message in Spanish now invites the player himself: “Messi, the best Milanesa in Miami awaits you.”

The dish, Milanesa a la Napolitana – breaded steak or chicken served with tomato sauce, sliced ham and mozzarella cheese – is said to be Messi’s favourite. And Maximiliano Alvarez, the co-owner of Fiorito, wants to cook it for the superstar after he arrives in the Sunshine State.

“It’s going to be definitely something super big for the city, for the sport,” Alvarez says of Messi’s looming arrival at the Major League Soccer (MLS) side. “He’s going to have a huge impact on the entire MLS.”

Messi, who turns 36 on Saturday, announced earlier this month that he intends to move to Inter Miami after a two-year spell with Paris Saint-Germain – turning down offers from the Saudi league and a chance to rejoin his old club, Barcelona.

While details of the deal have yet to be finalised, fans in the city – where interest in football has been growing over the years – are ecstatic.

They said that the interest Messi will bring to the team can make South Florida a global football destination, and his skillset will help transform the fortunes of Inter Miami, which has been struggling since its inaugural season in 2020.

“It’s massive for the club, it’s massive for the league. I think – definitely, hopefully – it helps the on-field product,” said Ukeba Simmons, a leader of the Black Herons United supporters’ club.

‘Seminal moment’

Simmons, who has been following Inter Miami since they first started playing, said some issues still need to be worked out in terms of Messi’s playing position and what supporting cast of players will be brought in to propel the team forward.

But for now, he is revelling in the possibility of regularly watching the Argentinian World Cup winner in person.

“Being able to see arguably the greatest player to ever play the game a few miles from your house is pretty exciting,” Simmons told Al Jazeera.

Inter Miami’s managing owner Jorge Mas told local reporters this week that he expected Messi’s first game with the club to be on July 21. He called the player’s arrival a “seminal moment” for the sport in the US. “I cannot overemphasise the magnitude of this announcement,” Mas was quoted as saying by the Miami Herald newspaper.

With the player’s first game still weeks away, glimpses of Messi-mania are starting to appear in the city.

Earlier this month, a mural depicting Messi in Inter Miami’s bright pink shirt popped up in Miami’s vibrant Wynwood neighbourhood.

Local media outlets have been constantly discussing the player’s move – along with other possible additions to Inter Miami’s squad, including several ex-Barcelona teammates of Messi, namely Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez.

The Spanish-speaking players certainly would not face a language barrier in South Florida – home to large immigrant communities from the Caribbean and South America.

In fact, the club’s slogan is in Spanish: Libertad. Unidad. Fortuna. (Liberty. Unity. Fortune.)

Ticket prices

Mas – along with businessman Jose Mas and retired English star David Beckham – set up Inter Miami in 2018, pledging to pursue a “global vision” that prioritises the local community.

That pledge may be tested with Messi’s arrival. Inter Miami’s home game tickets that used to go for less than $50 are now in the hundreds of dollars – if they can be found at all.

While many supporters have welcomed the new-found attention their young club is enjoying, there have been concerns about loyal fans not being able to attend games because of the cost.

Inter Miami plays at an 18,000-seat stadium in Fort Lauderdale, north of the city. There are plans to expand capacity to about 22,000 by filling out the corners of the venue, but it may not be enough to accommodate the supporters and visitors who want to see Messi in action.

The team will eventually move to a yet-to-be-built 25,000-seat stadium, dubbed the Miami Freedom Park. That project is under way and is expected to be completed in mid-2025.

Nicolas Abad, director of communications for the Siege Supporters Club, said the uptick in ticket prices has been “insane”.

“It is a huge worry of ours amongst all the supporters. It does feel like most of us are going to get priced out, unfortunately. Hopefully, the team can help come up with solutions,” Abad told Al Jazeera.

The increased demand is a testament to Messi’s early effect on the team. Abad said he was being contacted by people he had not heard from in a long time who are requesting tickets.

“There’s no reason my ex-girlfriend’s roommate’s ex-boyfriend should be texting me,” he said.

Messi mural
Maximiliano Alvarez stands in front of the Messi mural outside Fiorito restaurant in Miami [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Football culture

Abad said it was not difficult for Inter Miami to amass a fanbase after it was established; there were “leftover” fans from the Miami Fusion – an MLS side that folded in 2002 – and with football gaining popularity in South Florida, many were ready for a local team.

He added that the level of football enthusiasm can be measured by the interest in the sport during the World Cup.

“It feels like every World Cup, it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” Abad said. “And this past one was huge. There were just so many watch parties. There were so many flags everywhere. It felt like the World Cup was in Miami instead of Qatar.”

Alex Windley, a freelance writer who covers the MLS and Inter Miami, said Miami is already a multicultural “football city” – a status that will be solidified by Messi’s move. Miami is also expected to host games in the 2024 Copa America and 2026 World Cup.

“With Messi coming down here, quite literally all eyes will be on South Florida,” she told Al Jazeera.

“It was already a soccer hotbed, but now after the Messi announcement, and with the Copa America and the World Cup coming up, I think it’ll just explode in the next four or five years.”

In short, fans insisted that Miami is ready for Messi – not just with its sandy beaches and party atmosphere – but also its football culture.

Many have likened Messi’s move to Beckham’s decision to join LA Galaxy in 2007. But while comparable in star power, the Argentinian player will be arriving in a US that is much more well-versed and interested in football.

For example, the Miami Fusion ceased to exist due to lack of support and revenues. Now its de facto successor, Inter Miami, is signing Messi and being linked to a host of top players in deals reported to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

Hoping for better results

Still, Inter Miami sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with 15 points from 17 games – a whooping 25 points behind conference leaders FC Cincinnati. All hope is not lost, however. The team is only seven points off ninth place – the last playoff spot.

The Eastern Conference has 15 teams, compared with 14 in the Western Conference. After the regular season, the top nine clubs in each conference break into a knock-out tournament with the winner crowned as the MLS Cup champions.

Many supporters are confident that Messi will help turn it all around for the Miamians.

Simmons, of the Black Herons United, said that aside from helping to attract more top players, Messi can be an inspiration to the players already at Inter Miami.

“You would expect everyone to rise to the occasion and be inspired by playing with a talent at that level … And that should impact games,” he told Al Jazeera.

Windley said the team has some “missing pieces”, but there are apparently plans to overhaul the squad and bring in players to support Messi.

One thing that no one seemed to doubt is the World Cup winner’s ability to produce his fabled “Messi magic” moments – where he creates something out of nothing – on US soil.

“He’ll do well. It’s Messi. Everyone is charmed by his softer demeanour, and how he gets on with things on and off the field,” Windley said. “So it’ll be a smooth, seamless transition for Messi.”

Source: Al Jazeera