Messi’s craze in Miami – over the arrival of soccer superstar Lionel Messi, one of the most famous humans on the planet – reached a fever pitch last week when he was spotted at a Publix grocery store near Fort Lauderdale, buying Lucky Charms and Fruit Loops.
Shoppers gasped and snapped photos with their cellphones. Random outing? Advertising stunt? Who cared? Mr. Messi and his photogenic young family had landed in a football-crazed region that had been hoping to capture him for years. Yep, Mr. Messi looked like a local, dressed in shorts and flip flops.
South Florida has been consumed by a frenzied fandom for Mr. Messi, the Argentine whose signing on Saturday represented a coup for Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami and Miami itself, the unofficial capital of the Latin America, with a penchant for celebrity. When the team introduced Mr. Messi to a packed stadium in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday night after a severe rainstorm, he thanked the crowd in Spanish « for helping us feel at home so quickly. »
“I am very happy that I chose to come to this city with my family,” she said. He is expected to debut in a game on Friday.
The team played a video montage of Miami celebrities welcoming Mr. Messi — Marc Anthony, DJ Khaled, Gloria Estefan — and then presented a concert featuring Latin pop singers Camilo and Ozuna.
Not since LeBron James declared in 2010 that he would « take my talents to South Beach » (actually, downtown Miami) to play basketball for the Miami Heat, has the region not been so infatuated with the imminent presence of a sports figure. In the weeks since Mr. Messi announced last month that he would sign with Inter Miami, artists have raced to paint murals of him around the city. Restaurants have redesigned their menus to offer versions of what is said to be his favorite dish, the breaded meat known as milanesa.
European and Latin American soccer players, including Mr. Messi, 36, have bought property and vacationed in South Florida for years, in part because they can enjoy a level of anonymity not possible elsewhere. But few expected Mr. Messi, who has played for club sides in Barcelona and Paris, to join bottom-placed Inter Miami at this point rather than Saudi Arabia, where he has been offered a more lucrative contract to close his legendary career .
His arrival prompted a seven-page publication in Sunday’s Miami Herald. In a city once known for its part-time paparazzi — actor Matt Damon, a former Miami Beach resident married to an Argentinian, said in 2009 that photographers only bothered him on weekends — Mr. Messi is been stalked by cameras.
He appears as a pink goat, a reference to Inter Miami’s team colors and his « greatest of all time » status, in a banner ad for Apple TV+, the MLS streaming partner with which he has signed an revenue sharing. A Hard Rock Cafe billboard has him selling a new Messi Chicken Sandwich.
South Florida Argentine community, the largest in the United Stateshe puffed up with joy that the South American country’s most recognized man is now one of them.
« Argentines have an immense sense of pride in Argentina, despite decades of political and economic turmoil, » said Gabriel Groisman, the former Bal Harbor mayor, whose parents immigrated from Argentina in the late 1980s. 70. “At home we only spoke Spanish. We had Argentinian-style barbecues in the backyard literally five times a week.
When Argentina, led by Messi, won its first World Cup in 36 years last year, caravans decked out in the country’s blue-and-white flags celebrated in a Miami Beach neighborhood sometimes called Little Buenos Aires . Last week, Mr. Messi dined at Café Prima Pasta, an Argentine-owned neighborhood restaurant where the most expensive dish, a steak, costs $36.95. Fans showed up at the back door for autographs and selfies.
National Football Federation of Argentina plans to build a $10 million training facility in North Bay Village, between Miami and Miami Beach. Mr. Messi reportedly owns a multimillion-dollar condominium in an ultra-luxury tower whose selling points include a car lift in nearby Sunny Isles Beach.
For Argentines, soccer is « like going to church, » said Carlos Delfino, who left Argentina for South Beach more than 20 years ago. He owns Parrilla Liberty, a steakhouse that is a sanctuary for Mr. Messi and Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to its 1986 world championship.
« Messi was definitely looking for safety, tranquility and the beach, » said Delfino, who flew to Qatar in December for the World Cup final. “And people who are warm. Argentines like to go for a coffee, greet people ».
“Here we breathe our culture: We know where to buy dulce de leche, yerba mate, facturas” or Argentinian pastries, said Maximiliano Alvarez, who commissioned a mural from Messi in 2018 for his restaurant, Fiorito, in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood . Messi’s arrival has already attracted more customers.
« For Messi to come here in person one day, » he said, « that’s the dream. »