Miami embraces Lionel Messi with murals, marketing and Milanesas

Miami’s Messi frenzy — following the arrival of soccer superstar Lionel Messi, one of the most famous people 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 looked and snapped cellphone photos. Relaxed excursion? Publicity stunt? Who cared? Mr. Messi and his photogenic young family had landed in a soccer-mad region that had hoped to capture him for years. Already, Mr Messi looked like a local, dressed in shorts and flip-flops.

South Florida has been consumed by a crazed fandom for Mr. Messi, the Argentine whose signing on Saturday represented a coup for Inter Miami in Major League Soccer and for Miami itself, Latin America’s unofficial capital with a penchant for celebrity. When the team presented Mr. Messi to a packed stadium in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday night, after a violent thunderstorm, thanked the crowd in Spanish “for helping us feel at home so quickly.”

“I am very happy to have chosen to come to this city with my family,” he said. He is expected to make his 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” (really, downtown Miami) to play basketball for the Miami Heat has the region been so enamored with the impending presence of a sports figure. In the weeks since Mr. Messi announced last month that he would sign a contract with Inter Miami, artists have been running 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, breaded meat known as milanesa.

European and Latin American soccer players, including Mr. Messi, 36, has been buying properties and vacationing in South Florida for years, in part because they can enjoy a level of anonymity impossible elsewhere. But few expected Mr Messi, who has played for clubs in Barcelona and Paris, to join last-placed Inter Miami at this point rather than Saudi Arabia, where he was offered a more lucrative contract to cap off his storied career. .

His arrival prompted a seven-page spread in The Miami Herald on Sunday. In a city once known for its part-time paparazzi — the actor Matt Damon, a former Miami Beach resident who is married to an Argentine, said in 2009 that photographers only bothered him on weekends — Mr. Messi has been hounded by cameras .

He appears as a pink goat, a reference to Inter Miami’s team colors and his status as “the greatest ever” in a banner ad for Apple TV+, the MLS streaming partner with which he signed a revenue-sharing deal. A Hard Rock Cafe billboard has him selling a new Messi Chicken Sandwich.

South Florida’s Argentine Community, the largest in the United Stateshas swelled with joy that the South American country’s most recognized man is now one of its own.

“Argentinians have tremendous pride in Argentina, despite decades of political and economic turmoil,” said Gabriel Groisman, the former mayor of Bal Harbour, whose parents immigrated from Argentina in the late 1970s. “We only spoke Spanish at home. We had Argentinian barbecue in the backyard literally five times a week.”

When Argentina, led by Mr. Messi, won his first World Cup in 36 years last year, caravans decked out in the country’s blue-and-white flag 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.

Argentina National Football Association plans to build a $10 million training facility in North Bay Village, between Miami and Miami Beach. Sir. Messi reportedly owns a multi-million dollar condo in an ultra-luxury tower whose selling points include a car elevator 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 shrine to Mr Messi and Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup.

“Messi was definitely looking for safety, calm – and the beach,” said Mr. Delfino, who flew to Qatar in December for the World Cup final. “And people who are warm. Argentines like to have a coffee, say hello to people.”

“We breathe our culture here: We know where to buy dulce de leche, yerba mate, facturas,” or Argentine pastries, said Maximiliano Alvarez, who commissioned a Messi mural in 2018 for his restaurant, Fiorito, in Miami’s Little Haiti -quarter. Mr. Messi’s arrival has already drawn more patrons.

“For Messi to come here himself one day,” he said, “that’s the dream.”

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