The blurry snaps posted on Instagram by Victoria Beckham told the story of a star-studded night out in Miami. Taken at a steak house and cocktail bar co-owned by the Grammy-winning Puerto Rican megastar Bad Bunny, they showed the fashion designer and her husband, David, enjoying a raucous dinner with a large group including a pair of new residents: the footballer Lionel Messi and his wife, Antonela Roccuzzo.
They did not show the fracas that erupted at the end of the night, when security guards bloodied a patron they suspected of trying to photograph the celebrities. Instead, Beckham captioned the pictures: “I LOVE MIAMI!!!”
She is far from alone. Since July, when the football player, arguably the “Goat” — greatest of all time — announced his move to underachieving Inter Miami, the city has been gripped by a state of suspended euphoria.
The club jersey — the same shade of flamingo pink as Don Johnson’s linen blazer in Miami Vice — has become ubiquitous. Messi’s face is everywhere: on gigantic murals, billboards, public transport and television adverts. Messi wares are being hawked on street corners and in every novelty store and sports outfitter in the city. Beach bars are serving Messi Mojitos, the Hard Rock Cafe offers the Messi Chicken Sandwich and Messi Burger, and a local brewery is selling pale pink cans of Goat 10 beer (he will wear the No 10 jersey for Inter Miami, as he has for most of his career).
“Everything changed literally overnight,” says Jermaine Scott, a professor of sports history and African-American studies at Florida Atlantic University. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
On the pitch, Messi, 36, has had an instant impact on the club, which plays in the Major League Soccer (MLS) league and is co-owned by David Beckham, himself once the biggest thing in US soccer. It took the former England captain years to mold LA Galaxy into contenders, but Messi has already turned perhaps the worst team in the league into perhaps the best.
Messi’s face is everywhere: on gigantic murals, billboards, public transport and television adverts.
DRV PNK Stadium, the club’s temporary home in Fort Lauderdale while it scrambles to build its own, is sold out for every game and in the VIP suites the Beckhams are rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kim Kardashian, LeBron James, Serena Williams, Puff Daddy and DJ Khaled.
Off the pitch, the Messi effect has proved even more spectacular. At the beginning of the summer, Inter Miami’s Instagram account had one million followers. It now has 15 million, not just more than any of its league rivals but more than any ice hockey, baseball or American football team and all but three US basketball teams.
Since Messi’s first game against Cruz Azul in July, where standing-room tickets started at nearly $900, average ticket prices have increased by more than 500 percent, from $110 to $690, according to TickPick, an online ticket site. That high-water mark extends across the league, at every stadium Messi travels to. Ticket prices for the recent match between Inter Miami and Los Angeles FC set a record as the most expensive in MLS history — roughly $900 for the cheapest option. Official and knockoff Messi jerseys have been on back order for months.
Messi has also transformed the business model of the MLS. His debut sparked the largest single-day number of subscriptions for Apple TV’s MLS streaming service, and those numbers have continued to surge ever since. Messi’s signing makes Apple’s deal with MLS more profitable than ever, which also helps Messi, because the financial package that lured the Argentinian superstar away from Saudi Arabia — a country that has courted all manner of professional golfers and football players over the past two years — guaranteed him a cut of all new Apple TV sign-ups, as well as a piece of the Inter Miami franchise upon retiring.
Average ticket prices have increased by more than 500 percent.
For Miami itself, the magnitude of Messi’s superstardom means the move outstrips even James’s decision to join the Miami Heat basketball team in 2010. Football has a far bigger global footprint, and as a city often described as the unofficial capital of Latin America because of the size of its Central and South American populations, Miami is highly aware of that.
“I don’t want to diminish James’s profile, but that was an American phenomenon,” says Scott, who is also a founder of Black Herons United, an inclusive black Inter Miami supporters group. “When Messi came here we attracted the entire international scene. It has brought all of the world and Miami together in a way that just wasn’t possible before. It’s incredible to watch the amount of support right now.”
Miami residents have long contended with negative stereotypes linked to drugs, violence and organized crime, dating from the Cocaine Cowboys era of the 1970s and 1980s, when the city resembled a failed state and was depicted in films such as Scarface as almost too dangerous to live in.
To outsiders, there is still a sense of it being a running punch line, an unserious place. But Messi seems to be lifting even that spell.
“It validates us,” says Augusto Esquivel, an Argentinian artist who has lived in Miami since 2001. “Not only because he’s an amazing player, but because he’s a good person, a family man — a positive force.”
Following the torrent of Miami-based artists who have created tributes to Messi in recent months, Esquivel is planning to create a sculpture of the impish soccer savant. “It will be my way of thanking him,” he says. “He brings so much joy, success, and business. That’s the feeling we all have toward Messi — we just want to thank him.”
Success on the field could be short-lived: Messi has a contract for 2 ½ years and the option of a one-year extension. But even if he retires, the princely deals with Apple TV and MLS, and the prospect of a role in the 2026 World Cup, which is being held in the US, Mexico and Canada, are an incentive not to leave too fast. His new circle of friends and relative ease in public suggest that Miami, with its large Argentinian population, is a good long-term fit.
“Messi and his family just seem very, very happy here,” says Scott. “I have a feeling he’ll stick around.”
Jordan Blumetti is a Florida-based freelance journalist, contributing to The Guardian, Vice, Men’s Health, and The Times of London, among others