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Artist Maximiliano Bagnasco paints a mural of Lionel Messi in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. Image Credit: AP

Miami: A hamburger and drink combination called the Lionel Messi. A huge sketch of the football star’s smiling face on a restaurant wall beside a viral meme from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. A beverage with a pink label matching the colour of the Inter Miami jersey he will wear.

Wherever you turn in Miami these days something reminds you of the arrival of the Argentine legend.

There is no hiding the euphoria generated by Messi in Miami as he begins the new Major League Soccer phase of his career in one of the most Latino cities in the United States. But his arrival is also bringing a note of sadness as fans know that at age 36 he is nearing the end of his career.

100,000 Argentines live in Miami

Messi announced on June 7 that he will play for Inter Miami in a move that is expected to energise football in the United States and South Florida with one of the sporting world’s best-known figures. More than 100,000 Argentines live in Miami, which will host World Cup matches in 2026.

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A television crew in front of one of the many Messi murals that are lining up the city. Image Credit: AP

The seven-time winner of the Ballon d’Or, the football world’s most prestigious individual award, is coming off two years with Paris Saint-Germain and is expected to make his Inter Miami debut against Mexican team Cruz Azul on July 21.

In a career spanning more than 17 years with his country’s national team, Messi has scored more than 100 goals, including two against France at the 2022 World Cup final, a match Argentina won on penalties.

Argentine fans get nostalgic

“I love that he’s in Miami because my children will be able to experience him like I experienced (fellow Argentina star Diego) Maradona,” said Maximiliano Alvarez, one of the owners of the Fiorito restaurant, where a wall has a giant mural of Messi. “It also makes me sad, nostalgic, because it looks like it is the beginning of his retirement.

“Coming to this league is not the same as playing in the European league,” said the Argentine businessman.

Álvarez and his brother Cristian had the original mural with Messi’s face painted in the restaurant in 2018, when many people criticised the star for his role in the Argentine national team’s poor performance. His idea was to honour him and the resilience he brings, never giving up.

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Staff at the Fiorito restaurant in front of Lionel Messi mural. Image Credit: AP

In 2021, they renovated the restaurant in Little Haiti in northeast Miami with another mural of Messi on the same wall, this one by Chilean-American artist Claudio Picasso.

On the walls of another restaurant called Kao Bar & Grill, in the Hallandale Beach area north of Miami Beach, Messi’s meme “¡Andá pa’ alla bobo!” [Go over there, fool!] is immortalised along with a giant drawing of the football star.

Missing calm and cautious way of speaking

Angry after Argentina’s heated victory over the Netherlands in the quarterfinals of the 2022 World Cup, Messi said those words to a Dutch player, who was passing by while he was being interviewed.

Messi, who is known for his calm and cautious way of speaking, repented the comment, which immediately went viral.

“He regretted it, obviously… but it was left as a joke,” said Augusto Falopapas, the artist who drew the meme on the restaurant’s wall.

To the south, in Wynwood district, an area near downtown Miami known for its warehouse-turned-art galleries, other artists have painted murals of Messi. There are two giant images of the player, one with a smiling face, the other with him running as if in a game. And there are plans for more, including a 10-metre high (32-foot-high) mural of Messi kissing the World Cup in an open parking lot.

Messi merchandise

Messi’s arrival has also impacted many outlets. The Argentine grill The Knife offers a Messi mojito and the Hard Rock Cafe is launching a new “Messi Chicken Sandwich” made from the star’s favourite “milanesas.”

Messi T-shirts, pants, sweatshirts with a hood and water bottles will also be for sale.

“When we found out that he decided to choose Miami as his South Florida home, it was incredible for us,” said Elena Alvarez, vice-president of global sales for Hard Rock International. “We are very, very grateful and we have him as a brand ambassador and we are launching (the new sandwich) at the same time that he is moving here.”

Near Miami Beach, at the Café Ragazzi of Argentine-Venezuelan singer-songwriter Ricardo Montaner, they are welcoming his return.

Ready to welcome Argentine great's return

Messi was there on vacation after he won the America’s Cup with Argentina in 2021. The star caused an uproar in the restaurant as fans came to greet him, forcing staff, including waiters and kitchen workers, to form a wall around him to protect him and allow him to exit to his car.

Now they want to offer the legend more privacy and are thinking of putting up curtains.

Emiliano Valdés, the cafe’s general manager, said “He is revolutionising the entire city,” and that Miami is welcoming Messi “with open arms.”