Miami, Florida – A mural of Lionel Messi greeted guests as they entered Fiorito Argentina restaurant for years, long before the World Cup winner decided to play for Inter Miami.
But on a chalkboard hanging outside the restaurant’s entrance, a new message in Spanish now invites the player: “Messi, Miami’s best Milanese awaits you.”
The dish, Milanesa a la Napolitana – breaded steak or chicken served with tomato sauce, sliced ham and mozzarella cheese, is believed to be Messi’s favorite. And Fiorito’s co-owner Maximiliano Alvarez wants to cook it up for the superstar once he arrives in the Sunshine State.
“It’s definitely going to be a big thing for the city, for the sport,” Alvarez said of Messi’s arrival in the Major League Soccer (MLS) team. “He’s going to have a huge impact on the whole of MLS.”
Messi, who turns 36 on Saturday, announced earlier this month that he wanted to move to Inter Miami after a two-year spell with Paris Saint-Germain – rejecting offers from the Saudi league and the chance to rejoin his old club Barcelona.
Although the details of the deal are yet to be finalised, fans in the city – where interest in football has been growing for years – are jubilant.
They said the interest Messi would bring to the team could turn South Florida into a global soccer destination and his skills would help turn around the fortunes of Inter Miami, which has struggled since its inaugural 2020 season.
“It’s huge for the club, it’s huge for the league. I think – certainly, hopefully – it helps the product on the field,” said Ukeba Simmons, a leader of the Black Herons United supporters’ club.
Simmons, who has been following Inter Miami since they first started playing, said things still need to be worked out in terms of Messi’s playing position and which supporting players to bring in to take the team forward.
But for now, he is relishing the prospect of seeing the regular Argentine World Cup winner in person.
“It’s exciting to see the greatest player of all time play the game a few miles from your home,” Simmons told Al Jazeera.
Inter Miami 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 “major moment” for sports in the United States. “I cannot stress enough the magnitude of this announcement,” Maas was quoted as saying by the Miami Herald newspaper.
With the player’s debut still weeks away, glimpses of Messi-mania are beginning to appear in the city.
Earlier this month, a mural depicting Messi in a bright pink Inter Miami shirt popped up in Miami’s vibrant Wynwood neighborhood.
Local media outlets are constantly discussing the player’s move – along with other potential additions to Inter Miami’s squad, including Messi’s former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Luis Suarez.
Spanish-speaking players certainly won’t 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. (Freedom. Unity. Destiny.)
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 prioritizes local communities.
That commitment could be tested with Messi’s arrival. Tickets to Inter Miami’s home games that used to go for less than $50 are now hundreds of dollars – if they’re available.
While many supporters have welcomed the new-found attention their young club is enjoying, there are concerns about loyal fans not being able to attend games due to the cost.
Inter Miami plays at an 18,000-seat stadium in Fort Lauderdale, north of downtown Miami. There are plans to expand the capacity to around 22,000 by filling the corners of the venue, but this may not be enough for fans and spectators who want to see Messi in action.
The team would eventually move to a 25,000-seat stadium known as Miami Freedom Park. The project is underway and expected to be completed by mid-2025.
Nicholas Abad, director of communications for the Siege Supporters Club, said the increase in ticket prices had been “insane”.
“This is a huge concern for us among all the supporters. Unfortunately, most of us seem to be getting lower prices. Hopefully, the team will help come up with a solution,” Abad told Al Jazeera.
The increased demand is testament to Messi’s early influence on the team. Abad said he is being contacted by people he hasn’t heard from in a long time requesting tickets.
“My ex-girlfriend’s roommate’s ex-boyfriend has no reason to text me,” he said.
Abad said that it was not difficult for Inter Miami to gather a fanbase once it was established; There were “leftover” fans of the Miami Fusion — an MLS team that folded in 2002 — and as soccer gained popularity in South Florida, many were ready for a local team.
He also said that the level of enthusiasm for football can be gauged by looking at the interest in the sport during the World Cup.
“It seems like every World Cup, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Abad said. “And this past was huge. There were just too many watch parties. There were many flags everywhere. It seemed like the World Cup was in Miami instead of Qatar.
Alex Windley, a freelance writer who covers MLS and Inter Miami, said Miami is already a multicultural “football city” — a status that will be cemented by Messi’s move. Miami is expected to host games in the 2024 Copa America and the 2026 World Cup.
“With Messi coming down here, literally all eyes will be on South Florida,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It was already a football hub, but now with Messi’s announcement and the Copa America and the World Cup coming up, I think it will explode in the next four or five years.”
In short, fans insist that Miami is ready for Messi — not just with its sandy beaches and party atmosphere — but also its soccer culture.
Many compared Messi’s move to his decision to join LA Galaxy in 2007. But despite the star power comparisons, the Argentinian player will arrive in a United States that is far more savvy and interested in soccer.
For example, Miami Fusion ceased to exist due to lack of support and revenue. Now its de facto successor, Inter Miami, is signing Messi and linking up with top players in deals worth several million dollars.
Hoping for better results
Still, Inter Miami sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with 15 points from 17 games – 25 points behind conference leaders FC Cincinnati. But all hope is not lost. The team is just seven points away from ninth place – the last playoff spot.
There are 15 teams in the Eastern Conference, compared to 14 teams in the Western Conference. After the regular season, the top nine clubs from each conference compete in a knock-out tournament and the winner is crowned as the MLS Cup champion.
Many fans are confident that Messi will help turn it around for the Miamians.
Black Herons United’s Simmons said that as well as helping to attract more top players, Messi could be an inspiration to players already at Inter Miami.
“You would hope that everyone would rise to the occasion and be inspired by playing with talent at that level … and that would have an impact on the games,” he told Al Jazeera.
Windley said the team had some “missing pieces”, but clearly had plans to overhaul the squad and bring in players to support Messi.
One thing no one has doubted is the World Cup winner’s ability to create his fabled “Messi magic” moments – where he creates something on US soil.
“He will do well. It’s Messi. Everyone is impressed by his soft-spoken demeanor and how he goes about things on and off the field,” Windley said. “So it will be a smooth, seamless transition for Messi.”