For all its undoubted virtues, Miami as of yet does not enjoy much of a reputation as a football hotbed. And while its young team is enjoying a sudden upturn in fortunes thanks to the new star in town, there is still some work to be done with the fans. One of the golden rules, for example: a real supporter does not walk out until the bitter end – and especially not when their heroes are waltzing to a brilliant victory.
Whatever the critics may have said about his form at club level over the last couple of years, Lionel Messi remains one of, if not the very best players in the world. He is not the first distinguished professional to head to the United States in the twilight of his career, but there is one crucial difference setting him apart from Pelé, Johan Cruyff, David Beckham and other previous trail-blazers: even at 36, he is clearly at the top of his game, an asset that any club in the world would give almost anything to possess.
Now that gulf in quality between the little Rosario native and the rest of us mere mortals appears even more gaping with his move stateside. In two games for Inter and barely 90 minutes of action Leo has already helped himself to three fine goals, helping his new employers seal consecutive victories for the first time since May. He is without question the star attraction; a fact underlined by an embarrassing episode after his substitution on Tuesday with Inter 4-0 up against Atlanta United, when scores of fans followed his lead and filed out of the stadium.
“I would have liked the fans to have stayed until the end to applaud the team,” a rather deflated Gerardo Martino admitted to reporters after the convincing Leagues Cup win. “But I understand their decision. He is such an important world figure that it is hard not to justify that attitude. I understand to be the case.”
Messi has certainly electrified Miami in the few short weeks since signing for the MLS side. His debut against Cruz Azul saw mega-celebrities such as LeBron James, Kim Kardashian and Serena Williams to turn up at the DRV PNK Stadium to catch the show, creating an incredible buzz around a team which looked doomed to a pitiful losing season before pulling off their transfer coup. Everything in the star's life has seemed almost scripted since World Cup glory, so it was no surprise to see a final twist to his introduction, a trademark free-kick in the final minute which brought the house down and sealed victory for the home team. From there it only got better, as Messi scored twice in the first 22 minutes of his inaugural start in Miami. If the likes of Cruz Azul and Atlanta in particular serve as a decent barometer for the quality of opposition he will be facing over the next few years, no scoring record may be safe.
Off the pitch, too, the scale of Messimania is overwhelming. Just ask Adidas, who reportedly received such a massive influx of request for shirts bearing Messi's No. 10 that they will be sold out until mid-November (for local fans, fortunately, replicas of varying quality are already in abundance in La Salada and whatever your closest street market may be). Apple TV, meanwhile, has seen subscribers to its MLS Season Pass product jump almost 50 per cent from June to July to one million, a number which will almost certainly be much higher when the latest figures covering Messi's first matches in Miami are released.
It is perhaps unsurprising to see television viewers skyrocketing, considering that ticket prices at the DRV PNK Stadium have jumped an average of US$190, or 690 percent, since his arrival, with similar hikes visible for Inter's coming away games – for that outlay, watching in one's living-room seems by far the most sensible option. It is all testament to the pulling power of one of the finest footballers in history, still at the height of his powers, and while he may still be able to shop in relative peace in Miami supermarkets, that may not continue for long if he continues to weave his magic and put the sport on the map.