Miami’s latinos await the arrival of their idol Messi

David Beckham’s club has thrilled the city by signing the Argentine player, promising to boost soccer interest across the United States

Staff at Miami’s Fiorito Restaurant wave the flag of Argentina in front of a mural of Lionel Messi
Staff at Miami’s Fiorito Restaurant wave the flag of Argentina in front of a mural of Lionel Messi, on June 7, 2023.Lynne Sladky (AP)
Iker Seisdedos

On the same day that Inter Miami confirmed the signing of Lionel Messi — one of the greatest soccer players ever — the team at the bottom of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Eastern Conference defeated the Birmingham Legion FC (Alabama) in a dramatic 1-0 win in an away game to reach the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup. While one piece of news loomed much larger than the other, the team celebrated a milestone. It was the first time they had ever advanced so far in the tournament, a feat that was not lost on anyone.

Established just five years ago, Inter Miami has yet to make much of a historical splash. Perhaps that’s why, despite all the hustle and bustle surrounding the news about Messi, the DRV PNK stadium — a semi-enclosed venue with flourishes of the team’s pink and black colors — was almost deserted on Thursday. A small iguana scurried about, a security guard patrolled the stadium on the lookout for curious onlookers, and just a handful of Argentine fans gathered to see for themselves where their great idol would be playing from now on.

Inter Miami's DRV PNK stadium; June 7, 2023.
Inter Miami's DRV PNK stadium; June 7, 2023.JOE RAEDLE (Getty Images via AFP)

One of the Argentines at the stadium, Marcelo López, was caught off guard by the news. He was in Miami visiting his daughter when he heard about Messi’s decision. That afternoon he was flying home to Rosario, Messi’s hometown in Argentina. “I live three blocks from where [Ángel] Di María grew up, so I’m a Central fan [Rosario Central Athletic Club]. But I love Messi [who as a child played for Central’s rival, Newell’s Old Boys]. We all love him madly,” said López, who was looking to take a few photos and for a store where he could buy an official Inter Miami jersey. He didn’t find it at the stadium complex — a gleaming construction in the middle of nowhere in Fort Lauderdale, about 30 miles north of downtown Miami, a non-place surrounded by workshops, warehouses and an aviation school that is intended to serve as the team’s future sports city.

“They have a lot to learn about merchandising from European and Latin American clubs,” said Carlos Arellano, another Argentine tourist who lives in southern Brazil. He came to the stadium with his brother-in-law, Pablo Papparella, who told us that Inter Miami’s fanbase “is strong because there are a lot of Latinos here, especially Uruguayans and Argentines.”

The club was founded in 2018 with the local Latino population in mind. The idea was to offer a soccer team to a major U.S. city with a large Latino population. Many fans in this country, with its overabundance of professional sports, follow the European and Latin American leagues instead of Major League Soccer.

The owners of Inter Miami, a group of investors led by Cuban-Americans Jorge and Jose Mas that includes British soccer player David Beckham, are determined to change that. The two brothers from Miami are the sons of Jorge Mas Canosa, a Cuban exile who led the anti-Castro movement in its early days. His 1997 funeral was attended by thousands.

Jorge Mas, the club’s largest shareholder and CEO since 2021, amassed a $1.3 billion fortune in the telephony business, according to Forbes. His stated mission after joining the team’s board of directors was “to turn the city into the soccer gateway to South Florida and the rest of the Americas.”

Siren songs

The 35-year-old world champion’s arrival in Florida promises to transform the trajectory of Inter Miami and the landscape of American soccer, which despite recent gains in popularity, needs a boost with the U.S. set to host the 2024 America’s Cup and 2026 World Cup along with Canada and Mexico. Miami is one of the 16 venues selected to host the World Cup games. Meanwhile, the world is wondering why the international legend was lured by the siren songs of the Sunshine State, foregoing a hero’s return to Barcelona and lucrative offers from Saudi Arabia.

On a sweltering, stormy June day, the city received news of Messi’s signing with curiosity and glee. It was the topic of the day in local newspapers and overshadowed the Miami Heat’s game against the Denver Nuggets in the NBA Finals.

Veteran sportswriter Greg Cote voiced his enthusiasm for the Messi signing in the Miami Herald, calling it “South Florida’s single greatest sports week ever,” even though there is no final confirmation of the deal. “The word came as the Heat prepared to host its first NBA Finals game in Miami in nine years,” wrote Cote. “Thursday the Florida Panthers will host their first Stanley Cup Final home game in 27 years. The Marlins are unexpectedly winning. The Dolphins are as promising as they have been in years and years. It was the best time as is, maybe ever, to be a pro sports fan in Greater Miami. And now... Messi!”

The excitement for Messi’s arrival can be felt most strongly in Little Argentina, an area in Miami’s North Beach bustling with social life. Here, two establishments reign supreme: the Buenos Aires Bakery and Manolo. Little Argentina was the epicenter of last December’s massive celebrations when Argentina won the World Cup. On Thursday afternoon, a young man named Luciano said he missed the local celebration because he was in Qatar for the championship game, and showed us a picture on his mobile phone to prove it. Luciano kept one eye on the TV screens at Manolo’s while we talked. His team was playing — San Martín de Tucuman (northern Argentina). “They have the most rabid fans in the world!” said Luciano. “Inter Miami isn’t a great team, but we all have to support them. The kid has come here to retire, and we must honor that.”

Inter Miami
A fan holds up a Messi jersey during the NBA Finals game between the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets.Mike Ehrmann (Getty Images)

David B., who works at the Buenos Aires Bakery, said that after the announcement, a spontaneous “parade of compatriots celebrated the news… My boss is a huge soccer fan, and he was jumping up and down with joy.”

Régulo Martín is a Venezuelan who also welcomed the news. “The team has had a disastrous season, partly, I think, because they were waiting for Messi. And he finally arrived. All they need now is to sign [Spanish star Sergio] Busquets and [Uruguayan] Luis Suárez,” he pronounced wisely.

According to The Athletic, Messi will become the highest paid player in the history of the MLS, and will also reap a percentage of television revenues. Messi also has a profit-sharing sponsorship deal with Adidas. The Athletic believes these lucrative deals will provide enough income for Messi to buy an MLS club when his playing career ends.

Messi, who has two properties in Miami and a good friend — Kun Agüero — who lives in nearby Hollywood, Florida, will see a kindred spirit in Beckham. Bucking the trend of other soccer greats who traditionally headed to the East and West Coast cities (dating back to Pele’s stint with the New York Cosmos), Beckham invested $25 million in Inter Miami CF in 2018. The team is now valued at $655 million, but reportedly shot up to over $1 billion since the Messi announcement.

After Beckham announced his participation in the Inter Miami ownership group, Messi shared his congratulations on social media and quipped, “Maybe you’ll call me in a few years.” Jorge Mas told The Athletic in 2021, “David and I are working very hard to make something like that [signing Messi] happen, which I think is not only transformative for Miami, but also for the league.”

After much anticipation, the call finally came, confirming Lionel Messi’s move to Inter Miami. In a joint interview with two Spanish sports papers — Mundo Deportivo and Sport — Messi announced that he’ll be free to join Inter as early as July 5, the same day his contract with Paris Saint Germain (PSG) expires. Messi enjoyed a brilliant 15-year career with FC Barcelona before playing with PSG for the past two years. His debut with Inter will likely happen against DC United (Washington, DC) on July 7. The nation’s capital has been more focused on its competitive women’s soccer team — Washington Spirit — but that may soon change.

The “Messi effect” is already being felt. The number of new Twitter followers of Inter Miami exploded, many of whom jokingly shared the same message — “Lifelong Inter fan!” Ticket prices also jumped. Admission to the team’s eagerly anticipated home match against the New York Red Bulls on August 26 skyrocketed from $30 to $512 on its website.

The announcement raises another question — is Inter’s stadium equipped for what’s ahead? DRV PNK can only hold 18,000 spectators, which is why the team plans to relocate to Miami Freedom Park, a futuristic 25,000-seat stadium that will be built on the site of an old golf course next to Miami’s airport. If all goes as planned, 2025 will mark the year Messi calls Miami his new home.

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