Miami Embraces Lionel Messi With Murals, Marketing and Milanesas

Miami’s Messi madness — over the arrival of the soccer superstar Lionel Messi, one of the most famous humans on the planet — reached a fever pitch last week when he was spotted at a Publix grocery store near Fort Lauderdale, buying Lucky Charms and Froot Loops.

Shoppers gawked and snapped cellphone pics. Casual outing? Publicity stunt? Who cared? Mr. Messi and his photogenic young family had landed in a soccer-crazy region that had been hoping to nab him for years. Already, Mr. Messi looked like a local, clad in shorts and flip-flops.

South Florida has been consumed with a frenzied fandom for Mr. Messi, the Argentine whose signing on Saturday represented a coup for Inter Miami of Major League Soccer and for Miami itself, the unofficial capital of Latin America, with a penchant for celebrity. When the team presented Mr. Messi to a packed stadium in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday night, following a violent thunderstorm, he thanked the crowd in Spanish “for helping us feel at home so quickly.”

“I’m very happy to have chosen to come to this city with my family,” he said. He is expected to debut in a match on Friday.

The team played a video montage of Miami celebrities welcoming Mr. Messi —Marc Anthony, DJ Khaled, Gloria Estefan — and then presented a concert with the Latin pop singers Camilo and Ozuna.

Not since LeBron James declared in 2010 that he would “take my talents to South Beach” (really, downtown Miami) to play basketball for the Miami Heat has the region been so infatuated with the impending presence of a sports figure. In the weeks since Mr. Messi announced last month that he would sign with Inter Miami, artists have raced to paint murals of him around town. Restaurants have redrawn their menus to offer versions of what is said to be his favorite dish, breaded meat known as milanesa.

European and Latin American soccer players, including Mr. Messi, 36, have bought properties and vacationed in South Florida for years, in part because they can enjoy a level of anonymity impossible elsewhere. But few expected Mr. Messi, who has played for club teams in Barcelona and Paris, to come to the last-place Inter Miami at this point rather than to Saudi Arabia, where he was offered a more lucrative contract to close out his storied career.

His arrival prompted a seven-page spread in The Miami Herald on Sunday. In a city once known for its part-time paparazzi — the actor Matt Damon, a former Miami Beach resident who is married to an Argentine, said in 2009 that photographers bothered him only on the weekends — Mr. Messi has been hounded by cameras.

He appears as a pink goat, a reference to Inter Miami’s team colors and his status as the “greatest of all time,” in a banner ad for Apple TV+, the M.L.S. streaming partner with which he signed a revenue-sharing agreement. A Hard Rock Cafe billboard has him hawking a new Messi Chicken Sandwich.

South Florida’s Argentine community, the largest in the United States, has swelled with delight that the South American country’s most recognized man is now one of its own.

“Argentinians have an immense sense of pride for Argentina, despite the decades’ worth of political and economic turmoil,” said Gabriel Groisman, the former mayor of Bal Harbour, whose parents immigrated from Argentina in the late 1970s. “We spoke only Spanish at home. We had Argentinian-style barbecue in the backyard literally five times a week.”

When Argentina, led by Mr. Messi, won its first World Cup in 36 years last year, caravans decked out with the country’s blue-and-white flags celebrated in a Miami Beach neighborhood sometimes called Little Buenos Aires. Last week, Mr. Messi dined at Café Prima Pasta, an Argentine-owned neighborhood restaurant where the most expensive dish, a steak, goes for $36.95. Fans showed up at the back door for autographs and selfies.

Argentina’s national soccer federation plans to build a $10 million training facility in North Bay Village, between Miami and Miami Beach. Mr. Messi reportedly owns a multimillion-dollar condo in an ultraluxe tower whose selling points include a car elevator in nearby Sunny Isles Beach.

For Argentines, soccer is “like going to church,” said Carlos Delfino, who left Argentina for South Beach more than 20 years ago. He owns Parrilla Liberty, a steakhouse that is a shrine to Mr. Messi and Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to its 1986 world championship.

“Messi was surely seeking safety, tranquillity — and the beach,” said Mr. Delfino, who flew to Qatar in December for the World Cup final. “And people who are warm. Argentines like to go get a coffee, say hello to people.”

“We breathe our culture here: We know where to buy dulce de leche, yerba mate, facturas,” or Argentine pastries, said Maximiliano Alvarez, who commissioned a Messi mural in 2018 for his restaurant, Fiorito, in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Mr. Messi’s arrival has already drawn more patrons.

“For Messi to come here himself one day,” he said, “that is the dream.”