On the morning of Lionel Messi’s first official practice with his new Inter Miami teammates, Freddy Eraza Jr. and his father woke up before the sun rose. Hoping to see Messi, and take a picture of him, they arrived at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Tuesday at 6 o’clock. A news helicopter had already been circling the practice field for at least an hour.

But Messi, 36, had already arrived when the Erazas got there, and they missed their chance for a memory. Four hours later, they were still standing in the parking lot of the practice facility and stadium, sweating along with dozens of fans in the sticky, 96-degree South Florida heat. They were all waiting to catch a glimpse of the man considered perhaps the greatest footballer of all time, who shockingly decided to spend the twilight of his career competing in Major League Soccer rather than for soccer powerhouse Barcelona or more money in Saudi Arabia.

It made sense to see a lot of Argentina fans, jerseys and flags here because Messi led the country’s national team to World Cup glory in December, and because Florida has the largest Argentine community in the United States. But Messi disciples come from everywhere.

“It’s all here,” said Eraza, 40, who is originally from Honduras and now lives in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s Nicaraguan. Costa Rica Mexicans And many Americans.”

This is the power of Messi. Before he agreed to come here, Inter Miami was perhaps best known for it cheating scandal in 2021. The team is a new franchise that only started playing in 2020, and it is in last place in the classification so far this season. But from the moment Messi announced his new home, he turned Inter Miami’s world upside down and shone a huge spotlight on South Florida.

Messi, who has claimed seven Ballon d’Ors as the world’s best male footballer, is not just an iconic athlete who has reached near-mythical proportions. He already has and will likely continue to have a great cultural impact on a city – and a region – known as the unofficial capital of Latin America. Restaurants have changed their menus to include Messi-themed dishes. Murals and signs of Messi appeared everywhere. Through him the Argentine culture spreads.

“The magnitude of this announcement – no matter how much I prepared, envisioned, dreamed – is amazing,” said Jorge Mas, the Cuban-American billionaire and South Florida native who is Inter Miami’s managing owner. “You would have to live in a cave not to know that Leo Messi is an Inter Miami player, no matter where in the world.”

Look no further than the demand for tickets.

Granted, Inter Miami plays in a stadium about 30 miles north of downtown Miami that has a listed capacity of 19,000 and is a placeholder until a proposed larger venue next to Miami International Airport is. expected to be completed in two years.

But prices for many tickets to Messi’s first Inter Miami game, Friday against Mexican team Cruz Azul, have topped $300 from about $40. He may not start and may play only a few of the game – part of a new month-long tournament between MLS and Liga MX called the Leagues Cup – but it has already been announced as a sellout.

The average ticket price on the secondary market for Inter Miami’s remaining home games rose to $850 from $152, with road games seeing an even bigger jump, according to Ticket IQ.

While some fans have gotten their hands on a Messi Inter Miami jersey, the items are hard to find online. A note of Inter Miami and MLS official stores, which are managed by sports apparel retailer Fanatics, said this adidas, the league’s official jersey supplier, “would deliver this product in mid-October.” The MLS regular season ends around then. (Adidas did not respond to a request for comment.)

According to Fanatics, since the launch of Messi’s new jersey on Monday, Inter Miami is its best-selling team across all sports. The company said Thursday that it has sold more Inter Miami merchandise since Monday than in the previous seven and a half months of 2023.

“This will give us a level of global exposure that we could never achieve without a player like Messi,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “Whether that is in South America or in Argentina, or in Europe because he had legendary careers in Barcelona and in France. The goal is to try to capture as much interest in Messi as we can.”

Before Messi’s announcement, Inter Miami’s Instagram account had one million followers. On Friday, the count grew to nearly 11 million, surpassing Inter Milan, the famous soccer club in Italy, and all professional sports teams in the United States except for three NBA teams.

“The city has a little bit of a buzz to it right now,” Inter Miami defenseman DeAndre Yedlin told nearly 40 reporters gathered before Thursday morning’s practice, a crowd much larger than usual. “People are really excited, which is nice to see.”

For Messi’s presentation event on Sunday — which was broadcast worldwide in English and Spanish on Apple TV+, MLS’ first-year streaming partner — nearly 500 media outlets were accredited, according to Inter Miami. And almost 200 were approved for Messi’s first practice. Even though reporters were given access to only 15 minutes of the training session, which is common in the sport, television and radio reporters from Argentina broadcast live from their places on the other side of the field, and then later from the parking lot.

“That’s a gift that Leo gave to the sport,” said David Beckham, the former soccer player and owner of Inter Miami. “It’s about legacy for him. He’s at the stage of his career where he’s done everything any footballer can do in the sport.”

Even off the field, Messi is among the most famous people on Earth. In the World Cup in Qatar, it was common to see not only Argentine fans wearing his jersey and singing the national team chants, but also people from Bangladesh or the Philippines. A 30-foot-tall cutout of Messi stands, for example, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.

Based on its popularity in Asia, the national soccer federation of Argentina already started its plans to grow in the American market a year and a half ago. Leandro Petersen, the AFA’s chief business and marketing officer, said the federation has 30-year agreements in South Florida or to build new facilities (North Bay Village) or renovate existing ones (Hialeah) to use as training centers for its national team ahead of the 2024 America’s Cup tournament and the 2026 World Cup.

But now that Messi is around, Petersen said the federation is benefiting from the boost and seeing its timelines accelerate. Before, he said, it was more difficult to compete with the established American sports leagues, such as the NFL or NBA.

“What’s happening now is that different companies that didn’t invest in soccer because it’s not the most popular sport in the United States, they’re now starting to include in their budget a part to invest in soccer,” Petersen said in Spanish.

Emi Danieluk, the brand ambassador of a local chain of Argentinian steakhouses called Baires Grill, which has often hosted Messi, his family and his Argentinian teammates, said that Messi’s arrival has already given more visibility to Argentinian culture, products and food. He sees more potential ripple effects from Messi’s presence.

“Today we have an example of what Messi generates in Florida, but I can assure you, when he starts traveling for Inter Miami to other stadiums that have more capacity, like Atlanta United and 80,000 people, the impact he will have in every state is really important,” said Danieluk. “I don’t think people realize that now.”

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