MIAMI — Soccer superstar Lionel Messi began training with Inter Miami CF on Tuesday, filling the team’s DRV PNK Stadium before even touching the ball.
Two days earlier, thousands of fans welcomed Miami and Major League Soccer in a ceremony complete with fireworks and musical performances.
“Just being close to him, you know, it’s like being close to God,” said Alfonso Sundblad, who flew from Buenos Aires to Miami, where his brother and family live, to watch the ceremony Sunday night.
Messi’s official debut with Inter Miami will be on Friday, against Cruz Azul of the Mexican Liga MX.
Messi’s move to Miami less than a year away from a historic and unforgettable victory for Argentina in the 2022 FIFA World Cup has inspired a great deal of enthusiasm and pride in South Florida, particularly among its broader Argentinian and Latino communities. But it is also a turning point for MLS, which propels the league, and men’s soccer in the US, to a level of global recognition it has yet to reach.
“It’s a surprise because MLS is, wasn’t, like the Italian or English or Spanish tournaments, you know? This is very good news for MLS because I think it’s going to get better, it’s going to raise the bar,” Sundblad said.
A ‘seismic’ impact
Pablo Maurer, a writer for The Athletic who covers MLS, said Messi’s arrival in the league has the potential to create a far-reaching “seismic” impact.
“All these leagues globally have a century advantage in MLS. Soccer in America generally has a long way to go before it gets to that level,” Maurer told NBC News.
Maurer compared Messi’s arrival to the late Brazilian soccer icon Pelé joins the New York Cosmoswhich is part of the North American Soccer League, in 1975.
“Back then, soccer was nothing to write home about in the United States and Pelé made that team in that league a very big deal for a few years and planted the seeds of soccer fandom,” Maurer said.
The status of soccer in the US is already well established compared to when Pelé inherited it. MLS comprises 29 teams and has since seen the arrival of great European legends like Zlatan Ibrahimović, Thierry Henry, Steven Gerrard and more.
But the best player in the world didn’t just come to the United States: His new home in Miami, referred to by some as the northernmost city in Latin America, has a fan base for whom soccer is more than just a sport.
María Carina Cortés, a Key Biscayne-based Argentine real estate agent who was also at the ceremony, says that after 28 years in the US I no longer feel like I have the Argentine flag “in my veins, in my blood”. But in the stadium on Sunday, her patriotism was palpable.
“Messi’s mania is crazy,” Cortés said. “It was incredible, everyone was shouting ‘Messi! Messi! Messi! He had goosebumps,” he said, using the Spanish phrase for “goosebumps.”
Despite MLS’s reputation as a place where players from Europe’s top leagues retire, the league has made significant gains over the past decade, including what it spends on players, viewership and media rightsMaurer said. The arrival of Messi will help move the needle to the next level in terms of profitability and notoriety.
Fans in the United States have had to look abroad for higher-caliber soccer teams, according to Maurer. While the MLB, NFL, NBA, and other professional sports compete against each other, MLS competes against every professional soccer league on multiple continents.
while the MLS has sometimes had trouble connecting With its Latino fan base, the explosive growth of the sport in the last decade has coincided with the Latino population growth in the US, Inter Miami itself is co-owned by Jorge Mas, a Cuban-American billionaire and his brother José, as well as soccer icon David Beckham.
Gladys Arneri, the owner of an Argentinian restaurant, Milanezza, in Key Biscayne, said that last year many of her Argentinian compatriots flocked to her restaurant to watch the World Cup final. The restaurant’s namesake dish, Milanese, is known to be one of messi’s favorites.
“We are very happy that he is here… you can see that he is enjoying his time here with his family,” Arneri said, referring to viral photos of Messi settling in Miami and, more recently, shopping in a publix Supermarket. “For us, Messi is like part of our family… So having him here is something incredible.”
Messi’s multicultural appeal has energized the city and has drawn more international stars to the team. His former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets has also joined Inter Miami, and Jordi Alba is expected to sign soon. Inter owners Mas and Beckham recently told The Miami Herald.
“This is America. It should be diverse and multicultural,” Maurer said, noting that Messi is widely known for not speaking English and for doing media interviews in Spanish.
“He is the best Latino player in the world because he is the best player in the world,” Maurer said. “This is a great moment for MLS. I think now it’s just going to be about how they take advantage of it.”
Isabela Espadas Barros Leal reported from Miami, Florida and Edwin Flores from Anaheim, California.