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SPORTS | 13-07-2023 11:34

'Messi mania' takes hold of Miami

'Messi-mania' strikes Miami as anticipation builds ahead of Lionel Messi's move to the United States and MLS.

Without a win under its belt since May, Inter Miami is an unlikely candidate to be crowned Major League Soccer's hottest team – but that was before Lionel Messi came to town.

Since agreeing to join the Florida club last month, the Argentine superstar has lit up anticipation around both the team and US professional soccer at large, especially among Miami's many South American residents.

Inter's regular season games are sold out, new stands are being built to expand its stadium's capacity, and the overall soccer mood is buoyant. 

Call it the Messi effect.

As his plane touched down on Tuesday, not far from his future stadium, some fans were at the airport to greet the World Cup champion.

"We were waiting for you, Messi-ah," signs read.

Chanting the name of their 36-year-old idol, supporters were happy to be there even if they didn't get to actually catch a glimpse of him.

"I feel very good, because I know that if I don't see him now, I'll see him in an hour, next week, or in 10 days," said Ariel González, 56. "We're always here fully with him."

Messi's move to Inter came as a surprise to many, even if the club had said it had been in the works for a while. Saudi Arabia also wanted to sign the star, and there was always the possibility he would return to his longtime club FC Barcelona.

Now, Inter fans are counting down the days until his grand debut, likely July 21 at the Leagues Cup, which brings together US, Canadian and Mexican teams.

For Raúl Patino, an Argentine who came to Florida more than two decades ago, Messi's arrival marks "a before and after" in the history of US soccer.

"He is one of the best players in the world, just like Pelé and Maradona were," said the 44-year-old fan. "In 10 years, when you ask a teenager what he wants to play, he's going to say soccer. And he'll do it because Messi is going to impact the lives of all those kids."

 

Miami 'looks like Buenos Aires'

Messi might not have touched the pitch yet, but he's already throwing the economics of American soccer for a loop.

The cheapest tickets for his possible debut, against Mexico's Cruz Azul, have rocketed from US$29 to US$329 on the resale platform TickPick – a 10-time mark-up.

And he'll be joined by familiar faces: Inter Miami has also hired former Argentina coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, and Spanish player Sergio Busquets, a former Messi teammate at Barcelona.

In Miami's artsy Wynwood neighbourhood, the Messi craze has taken other forms, like the massive mural of the Argentine that is being painted by his fellow countryman Maximiliano Bagnasco.

The artist has finished the first step – the footballer's smiling face – but is still working on Messi's body, kitted out in his new team's colours.

Bagnasco advances slowly in his meticulous work each morning, sitting under an umbrella to protect himself from the hot sun.

"I painted a big Messi in Albania, and when I was there, it was confirmed that Messi was coming here," he recalled. "Then a lot of people who knew me told me: Now you have to paint him in Miami."

Nearby, Juan Tavoas, from Buenos Aires, is surprised by the excitement.

"It's a bit crazy what Messi means to us as Argentines," the 38-year-old tourist says. "Now he is moving here to Miami. In every business there are Messi T-shirts. Everything is Messi, Messi, Messi. This looks like Buenos Aires or Rosario."

And yet the so-called "Messi mania" has only just begun.

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by Gerard Martínez, AFP

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