Rain or shine, Miami and MLS now brace for Messi's big debut

Beckham: Lionel Messi will put the eyes of the world on MLS (1:18)

David Beckham says increasing visibility for MLS and Inter Miami was one of his chief goals in bringing Lionel Messi to the club. (1:18)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- You could hear the parking lot surrounding DRV PNK Stadium before you could see it.

Inter Miami was preparing to introduce perhaps the single biggest signing in American professional sports: Lionel Messi.

The 20,000 fans arriving for Sunday's event responded in kind. Drums, horns, cymbals, reggaeton. Argentina and Inter Miami flags waving alongside one another, the Albiceleste and the pink-and-black colors rippling in a rapidly darkening sky.

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An hour or so before the gates opened, it looked like a typical south Florida day. But if you've ever spent a summer here, you know how quickly the weather can change. The rain fell at 6 p.m. sharp. Hard. Heavy wind and lightning soon followed.

But not even the sudden storm was stopping "The Unveil," as the event was dubbed. South Florida had waited more than a month for this day, ever since Messi announced June 7 that he would join the club.

Seeking shelter from the downpour, a thousand or so fans crashed the stadium gates during the 90-minute weather delay. By the time the gates officially opened at 8 p.m., it somehow felt like more people were at the stadium grounds than before.

"I don't take anything away from LeBron [James], but this is like a worldwide level," said Inter Miami season-ticket holder Carlos Sanchez, comparing Messi's arrival with when the NBA's biggest star joined the Miami Heat in 2010.

"This expands beyond Miami-Dade and Broward County," Sanchez added. "The GOAT is outside."

David Beckham, co-owner of Inter Miami, had waited even longer for this day. Once the face of MLS and its highest-profile signing when he joined the LA Galaxy in 2007, Beckham presenting Messi as the league's next superstar almost felt symbolic.

"Ten years ago, I started my journey to build a new MLS team," Beckham said from a rain-soaked stage in the middle of the field. "I said then, I dreamt of bringing the best players in the world to South Florida and to the great city to Miami.

"Players who shared our ambition to grow soccer in this country ... We are so happy that you are all here to celebrate this incredible moment."

It was the culmination of a rollout that has seen Miami christened with murals of Messi, food items dedicated to him, billboards erected, and jerseys already sold out.

"I am very happy to have chosen to come to this city with my family, to have chosen this project and I have no doubt that we are going to enjoy it very much," Messi said in Spanish, once he finally walked onto the stage. "We are going to have a good time and great things are going to happen."

James joining the Heat was probably the biggest signing in American sports -- until last week. Messi arguably has four times the reach of the NBA's all-time leading scorer; James' 156 million followers on Instagram somehow pale in comparison to Messi's 479 million.

Miami is no stranger to star talent, having seen the likes of Dan Marino, Dwyane Wade and Tyreek Hill -- not to mention LeBron James and his famous decision in 2010 to take his talents to South Beach.

The club itself trails Messi by a lot (Inter Miami has 10 million Instagram followers), but that's more the city's other four major men's teams -- the Dolphins, Heat, Marlins, and Panthers (9.1 million total).

And then there are Messi's numerous trophies with Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and the Argentina national team (including the World Cup title in 2022).

LeBron was huge, but Messi is global.

The anticipation could be felt long before Messi landed in Miami or even had officially signed. When Inter Miami hosted Austin FC on July 1 in the team's first home match following Messi's decision, there was already a sense of what was to come.

While game-day traffic was light about an hour before kickoff, the media lot was full. Two media members joked about the lot being full, dreading the upcoming mess in what will be among the smallest (compare DRV PNK's capacity of 20,000 to Barcelona's Camp Nou of nearly 100,000) Messi has ever played home matches in.

Tickets for the Austin game and for the subsequent July 4 home match against Columbus could be found for $3. Ahead of Messi's home debut on July 21 against Liga MX side Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup tournament, tickets are going for at least $250 to several in the $1,000-$2,000 range.

'Everywhere Messi goes, it's a revolution'

To say Wynwood is covered in graffiti murals is an understatement; it'd be easier to find snow in Miami than a blank wall here in one of the city's top neighborhoods for arts and entertainment.

On the west-facing side of the newly-built WYND 28 apartments on NW 28th Street, Maxi Bagnasco found a blank wall. The Argentinian artist was commissioned to paint a mural of Messi -- something he's done in numerous locations around the world.

Several other Messi murals have popped around Wynwood, but Bagnasco's easily towers above them all. Taking up nearly the entire wall of the five-story building, his mural is impressively photorealistic; if you didn't know better, you may think it's a billboard.

It's 90 degrees and humid outside. Bagnasco takes a break from his work, sunscreen and white paint smeared across his face and clothes. When asked if he has water, Bagnasco smiles and gestures toward the six-pack of beer sitting in the shade under a small tree nearby -- a gift from an admirer.

As he speaks primarily in Spanish, cars slow to a stop. Mopeds pull over to the side of the road, pedestrians crane their necks toward the monolithic wall, their legs breaking stride when they get the memo.

Everyone does the same thing -- stare for a few seconds, mouths agape, then reach for their phone to take pictures. Bagnasco laughs appreciatively, but he's not surprised.

"Everywhere Messi goes, it's a revolution," he says in Spanish. "There's a lot of people coming here from different countries, Argentina, too. That's what Messi brings."

Bagnasco started painting on July 1 and took him roughly three weeks to complete. While working one day, he looked down to see Beckham staring back up at him.

"What the f---! It's David Beckham," he exclaimed, needing no interpreter to describe his reaction upon seeing his surprise visitor.

Beckham hopped the fence to speak with Bagnasco, eventually joining him on the lift to help paint the white on Messi's teeth -- all while Victoria Beckham stood below and took a video for Instagram.

'Messy' meal fit for a GOAT

An estimated 150,000 Argentines live in Miami; if you want to find a restaurant promoting a Messi-themed dish, you probably won't have to look far. Hard Rock Cafe, with whom Messi has an endorsement deal, just came out with a sandwich inspired by one of his favorite dishes, chicken milanesa.

But other joints are getting a bit more creative.

At La Birra Bar in North Miami Beach, restaurant manager Emmanuel Arballo has been hyping up their latest creation and is eager to share it. He personally escorts a burger on a silver tray from the kitchen to a high-top table. When he sets it down, it takes a few seconds to figure out how to handle it.

Its buns are upside down, and underneath an oozing white sauce dubbed "mayochurri" are two beef patties fused together by white cheese.

It's a Messy Burger. Get it?

"We are Argentinian and like the good Argentinians that we are, we're very excited to receive Messi here," Arballo said. "I think [Diego] Maradona and Messi are the two best players in history. So we thought it was a good idea to have a tribute to Messi, so we created this burger -- the 'Messy Burger.'"

The restaurant is an offshoot of a chain founded in Argentina by Daniel Cocchia and his wife and son in 2001. The restaurant -- which has 17 locations in Argentina and one in Madrid -- released its tribute to Messi on July 10; the date was no accident.

Behind the register hang a pair of jerseys, each with the iconic No. 10 worn by both Maradona and Messi.

"For us, he's not a person. He's like a God," Arballo said of Messi. "We love football, we breathe football and we think Messi is the greatest. It's very exciting, we're very happy he is here."

Room for more Messi (and Miami) fans

The club has averaged between 12,000 and 15,000 fans per game this season despite its current standing at the bottom of the MLS table. The fans are loyal, and they're loud.

It's underneath DRV PNK Stadium's north stands on game days where "La Familia" gathers before kickoff. That's to say, the superfan collective made up of all five factions of the club's official supporter groups: Vice City, The Siege, Nacion Rosa y Negro, Southern Legion and IMS.MMXX.

They all walk to their seats together, playing drums and horns along the way. Once they get there, their flags go up, as does the pink smoke. The word "seats" is used liberally here; they're standing and shouting the entire match.

They'll be the heartbeat for the new wave of fans set to join them, many of them who likely be donning a Messi jersey.

Carlos Sanchez, the aforementioned season-ticket holder, ordered his right away once he heard the announcement in June. A season-ticket holder since the club's inception in 2014, he was nearly brought to tears by Messi's arrival.

"Dream come true, man," he said. "We were all watching him win the World Cup. Little did we know that he could come here. So when we saw it was a reality, we were almost crying, man. It's like, this is a once in a lifetime chance."

In attendance with his family during Miami's game against Columbus on July 4, Sanchez noted a few new faces in the stands, but he's not gatekeeping the club he's supported for the past decade.

There's always room for more, he said.

"There are definitely a lot of people jumping on the Miami bandwagon," he said. "But I love the pink and black. I've been here since day one but I welcome everyone to come. This is an experience that's going to make a lot of people fall in love with the sport.

"It's the best thing that could have happened to this league right now and to happen in Miami, our hometown. It's great, man."

Bienvenido, Lionel Messi. South Florida has been waiting for you.