The Miami Heat were the runners-up in this month’s NBA finals, while the Florida Panthers reached the NHL’s Stanley Cup final down the road in Sunrise. And then there’s the small matter of Lionel Messi joining Inter Miami CF of MLS.
The 2022 World Cup winner will join his new teammates within weeks and locally there’s disbelief to accompany incredible excitement. It probably won’t feel real until Messi is pictured with the club’s co-owner, David Beckham, holding aloft a pink and black team scarf.
The announcements thus far have been strangely understated. Messi says he has “decided to continue the path in Miami” and the club confirmed his pending arrival via a cryptic Instagram post that went out to around a million followers. The account has since amassed another 7m followers. To put that number into context, the NFL’s most valuable franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, has 4.5m. Then again, Messi himself has half a billion. The opportunities this presents for the team and league are gigantic.
“It’s surreal, but it’s real. He is coming, even though they’re not saying much,” says Franco Panizo, of the Miami Total Futbol podcast. “It’ll feel more real when he gets here and when he plays his first game it’s going to be spectacular.
“Besides the cameras and the glitz and glamour, just seeing him on the field and the atmosphere in the stadium is going to be incredible. This is going to be transformative for Inter Miami.”
Local excitement even permeated the hyper-focused environment of the NBA finals. The Heat’s own global star Jimmy Butler, an enormous soccer fan, said: “I’m so excited for the city to have a player of that caliber here. Fans from all over the world are going to come here to watch him compete.”
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra told the Guardian before Game 4: “It’s exciting. My two sons are just starting to get into soccer … football. I hope I can get a ticket for some games.”
Spoelstra and Butler will be OK for a seat, but good luck to everyone else. The secondary ticket market for Messi’s potential home debut on 21 July starts at more than $800. Or you could drop $20,000 for a front-row seat on the halfway line.
The striking part is that Inter Miami are wretched and these halcyon south Florida sports days aren’t without suffering. The Heat were convincingly beaten by the Denver Nuggets in the NBA finals and Inter lost 3-1 at New England on Saturday. Life’s tough at the top and, in Inter’s case, the very bottom.
Messi is joining a team dead last in the Eastern Conference after six straight league defeats and without a permanent manager. Phil Neville, who many believe was appointed because he’s Beckham’s pal and was granted extended grace for the same reason, was finally sacked on 2 June. Neville’s assistant, former Real Salt Lake City midfielder Javier Morales, is filling in.
A year ago, Morales was coaching Inter’s Under-17s. Now he’s weeks away from coaching the game’s biggest star. But it’s unlikely Morales, who is Argentinian, will be appointed full-time. Messi’s former boss at Barcelona and Argentina, Gerardo Martino, has reportedly been lined-up. Many high profile, more experienced coaches will now covet the opportunity to work with the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. And the same goes for players.
Miami’s front office must get creative given the MLS salary cap rules and the restrictions they’re operating under for breaking them, but former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Luis Suárez are among the rumoured targets.
Indeed, given the friendly MLS playoff structure, the season is far from lost. Inter are seven points from playoff contention at the midway point and have a US Open Cup semi-final to contest. It could yet be a successful season depending on how involved (and motivated) Messi is upon arrival.
“It’s MLS, man,” Panizo says. “The ninth-placed team makes the playoffs. You can make that up in the second-half of the season when you sign a designated player. There’s been examples of that throughout the history of the league.”
Besides joining a last-placed team, the glamour of the move is somewhat undercut by Inter’s playing arrangements. When Bleacher Report channeled LeBron James’ famous decision to “take my talents to South Beach”, a Twitter user with an eye for accuracy responded: “He’s technically taking his talents to Commercial Blvd in Fort Lauderdale near a bunch of auto body shops and a seafood restaurant named Catfish Dewey’s.”
Indeed, Inter’s temporary DRV PNK stadium is 35 miles from the glamour of South Beach and its 18,000 capacity is joint-lowest in MLS. The bare bones arena is nice enough, but has four very open corners and you can see the pitch from the parking lot. It’s a little unbecoming for one of the greatest players of all time.
Back-up goalkeeper Nick Marsman has already expressed concerns. “Personally, I think that the club is not ready for the arrival of Messi,” he told ESPN. “We have a temporary stadium, people can enter the field and we go to the stadium without security.”
Panizo added: “If the games are at DRV PNK stadium they’ll need much more security than there is now, they’ll probably need to find a creative way to get Messi in and out. It’ll be trial and error.”
New England, Charlotte, Seattle, Chicago, New York City and Atlanta play at stadiums built for the NFL or MLB. Those teams can max out huge capacities when the Messi roadshow visits. Inter Miami can’t. Unless they move the games to a venue like the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium, which houses 65,000.
“They’re going to have to find a different place to play,” says Will Manso, WPLG Local 10’s lead sports anchor. “With an 18,000 stadium, you’re going to have two or three times the people wanting to see Messi play, if not more.
“When you get those stars, every game becomes like a rock concert and Inter Miami has to look at it that way. Logistically, how are they going to do it? It’s never going to be a case of: ‘Oh well, it’s another game for Lionel Messi’. Everyone will want to go and see him.”
Talk to any soccer-playing kid in south Florida and they’ll name Messi as their favorite player, so it’s imperative Inter make the experience accessible. In just one or two years, the club can lock in an entire generation of fans.
The length of the contract is yet to be disclosed, but it’s possible Messi won’t play at Miami’s proposed permanent home either. The 25,000-seat arena in Miami’s Freedom Park is yet to break ground amid seemingly endless wrangling and won’t open until at least 2025.
Manso adds: “Maybe getting Messi is the big push that allows them to push this through and build that world class, state-of-the-art facility”.
On and off the field, it has been a fractured start to life for Inter Miami, now in their fourth season, but there’s a feeling this signing could be a catalyst. The Miami Heat organization can empathize with its soccer sibling. It was established as an expansion franchise in 1988, competing for local relevance against Dan Marino’s Dolphins. Amassing star players was a critical part of that journey.
Legendary coach Pat Riley arrived in 1995 to offer legitimacy. Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade brought the team a title in 2006. The LeBron James Big Three era – which brought another two championships – truly made Miami a basketball town.
Tony Fiorentino was an assistant coach to Riley and has been with the organization for every one of its 35 seasons. He sees the parallels and opportunities, but also the challenges for Inter Miami, a club still early in its development.
He says: “It all started when Coach Riley got here. That was the big event. It was exciting. We were looking forward to bigger and better things. But with an internationally renowned guy like Messi, Inter Miami’s security and such will have to spike.”
Eric Reid, his longtime broadcast colleague, added: “This reminds me a lot of Heat as an expansion team. Professional soccer is somewhat new here, but this elevates it to a global level. He’s going to bring a lot of positive energy and light to it.
“LeBron was a superstar, and it was electrifying to have him in our presence. We became the epicenter of the basketball universe, and then everything evolved through Miami.”
With Messi on board, Inter Miami have the incredible opportunity to follow the Heat’s blueprint in MLS. Now we will see if the club can pull it off.
Chris Smith in Miami
Published: 2023-06-14 09:00:09