Why Lionel Messi looks right at home in Broward County (no offense, Miami)

Lionel Messi in Miami has been one of the biggest media stories of the week, not only in the U.S. and not only for sports fans. Making an even bigger statement than LeBron taking his talents to South Beach, Messi’s move is symbolic cultural shorthand for why, as if you needed a reminder, Miami is cool. 

Except … Messi’s new home field is in Fort Lauderdale. And the most heartwarming (and Tweeted) “Miami” moment of his debut weekend — a regular-guy grocery run to Publix with his wife and kids — also took place in Broward County. 

Consumers of national media are forgiven if Messi’s Broward County relationship is news to them. USA Today’s account of Messi’s festive introduction on Sunday at Inter Miami CF’s pitch at DRV PNK Stadium offered no location for the venue. It did quote club co-owner Jorge Mas telling the storm-soaked crowd: “We’re doing this Miami-style, in the rain.” 

New York Times readers also may have needed a map when the story quoted Messi saying, “I’m very emotional and very happy to be here in Miami,” at a stadium in an unspecified location “about 30 miles north of downtown Miami.” 

On Fox News on Monday, anchor Charles Payne delivered an effusive description of “the excitement down there in Miami” in a conversation with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. Touting the quality of life in his city, Suarez said, “It’s really no wonder that he chose Miami.”

Also a presidential candidate — because hubris is like humidity in Miami — an immaculately coiffed Suarez took time to tout a raffle he’s running: A $1 donation to his campaign gets you a chance to win two front-row seats for Messi’s debut match against Cruz Azul on Friday. Unsaid was that the winner would need to travel to Fort Lauderdale to see the game.  

Say hello to my little friend

But if there were a lesson to be learned from his celebratory debut weekend, it is that the 36-year-old Messi is likely not attracted by the glamorous energy produced by the city of “Scarface,” 24-hour nightclubs and gold-flake martinis.

At his unveiling on Sunday, surrounded by Inter Miami ownership in matching dark blazers, including the perpetually stylish David Beckham, Messi walked the runway in faded jeans and a T-shirt. Famously spotlight-shy, he wore a look of sheepish unease at the spectacle.

Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi waves to the crowd after being presented as the newest player for Inter Miami CF at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Sunday, July 16, 2023. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
New Inter Miami CF star Lionel Messi waves to the crowd on Sunday at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Last Thursday, he shocked fans and media observers around the globe by stopping at a Publix that most identified as being in Miami — the narrative needed it to be in Miami — but was actually in Sea Ranch Lakes, the small oceanfront city north of Fort Lauderdale.

Dressed in a plain, logo-free T-shirt, shorts and sandals, the world’s most famous athlete casually walked the aisles, dropping cereal and sundries into a cart, his wife and three sons in tow, without a bodyguard in sight. 

Captured in a stream of social-media pictures and videos, such an average-José moment is something Messi could not experience in Barcelona, where he became a cultural demigod over the course of nearly two decades, nor in his homeland of Argentina, where his public appearances draw adoring mobs. Nor, probably, in Miami. 

It was a reminder of a time when another soccer superstar, Manchester United legend George Best, in his two years with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, would ride around town in a top-down convertible, unmolested by crowds or paparazzi.

Messi’s contract with Inter Miami is reportedly a two-and-a-half-year deal worth as much as $60 million annually through the 2025 season (with an option for 2026). The contract also includes equity in the team after he retires.

Inter Miami is planning to move from Fort Lauderdale to a new stadium at Miami Freedom Park, on the site of Melreese Country Club, just east of Miami International Airport, for the 2025 season. 

Messi’s introduction in Fort Lauderdale was greeted by snarky social-media criticism of DRV PNK Stadium’s newly expanded 22,000 seats as being too puny for the soccer giant, who routinely played in front of 99,000 fans in games at Barcelona’s Camp Nou. The stadium at Miami Freedom Park would seat 25,000.

While Inter Miami ownership has been firm about a 2025 stadium opening, nothing about the project has gone smoothly, and anyone who has tried to build something in South Florida will tell you to expect delays at Miami Freedom Park. So might Messi be playing in Fort Lauderdale longer than expected? Right up until his retirement?

Welcome to Broward

If Messi is looking for a place to settle close to his new pitch, there is a case to be made that such a humble family man might feel more at home in Broward County. 

Perhaps he was kicking the tires on a residence in exclusive Sea Ranch Lakes — the small, private enclave of multimillion-dollar waterfront homes about 5 miles east of DRV PNK Stadium.

Or take Weston, where a growing Argentine population is illustrated by four Argentine restaurants on Weston Road alone, and a fifth a couple of blocks away in Weston Town Center. OK, he might have to wear a disguise to Publix in Weston.  

Of course, Messi is a Rosarino, a native of Rosario, a large river-port city (almost the same size as Broward County with more than 1.3 million residents) that lives in the shadow of larger and more celebrated Buenos Aires. Rosario is known as the “Chicago of Argentina” — what is Fort Lauderdale if not the Second City of South Florida?

A day before his splashy debut, Messi was greeted by the mayor of Fort Lauderdale, Dean Trantalis, not with a slick Fox campaign pitch, but with a sincere Instagram shout-out in front of DRV PNK Stadium.   

“I want to welcome you to your new home,” Trantalis says in the video, clad in a pink Inter Miami jersey. “This is your new pitch, and I want you to know there is so much more to enjoy.”

The video’s dutiful survey of oceanfront activities, restaurants, hotels, cultural venues, downtown shopping and kid-friendly parks included an unsubtle suggestion that their proximity to each other — the “it’s all right here” big-city, beach-town vibe — is a rare find. And certainly not found in Miami.

“This is the city you’re never going to want to leave,” Trantalis says.

When Messi debuts at DRV PNK Stadium on Friday, he will be merely the most recent sports legend to play on that patch of land. Located off Commercial Boulevard just west of Interstate 95, the Fort Lauderdale property is ground zero for soccer history in South Florida.  

In 1977, the since-demolished Lockhart Stadium became home to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, which featured one-time Manchester United star Best, along with Peruvian great Teófilo Cubillas and German scorer Gerd Müller. Visiting stars included legends of the game: Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Johan Cruyff.

Lockhart Stadium also was the home pitch for South Florida’s original MLS team, the Miami Fusion, led by Colombian star Carlos Valderrama. The Fusion competed from 1998 through 2001, but had their greatest success in their final season, under coach Ray Hudson, who had played with the Strikers and friend George Best.

While playing just two seasons of soccer in Fort Lauderdale, the mercurial Best blazed a memorable trail in the city, both on the field and in local bars. But in an echo of what is heard today about Messi, one-time Strikers president Noel Lemon called Best “the best player ever to play the game.”

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - 1975: (FILE PHOTO) In this file photo released November 24, 2005, George Best is seen in action for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1975. According medical reports the footballing legend George Best, who is in a London hospital, could die within the next 24 hours. The 59-year-old former Manchester United player suffered from a series of internal organ infections after undergoing a liver transplant in July 2002. The Northern Irish player made his debut for Manchester United in 1963 at the age of 17 and won English and European Footballer of the Year in 1968. Mandatory Credit: Allsport UK /Allsport *** Local Caption *** George Best ORG XMIT: dddaaa
George Best, who made his debut with Manchester United at age 17, in action for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. (Allsport UK via Getty Images Europe)

The land around DRV PNK Stadium also was once home to Fort Lauderdale Stadium, where the New York Yankees played spring training games between 1962 and 1995. Some locals still share stories of Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle soaking up the old Fort Lauderdale lifestyle back in the day. 

But if we’re looking for celebrities who led the more dignified life that Messi may aspire to in the Fort Lauderdale area, there is Joe DiMaggio, similarly reserved and beloved for his acts of charity before his passing in Hollywood. The legacy of the Yankees icon is remembered at the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood.

Or perhaps actor Lee Majors, who lived on a point at the end of San Marco Drive in Fort Lauderdale’s distinctive Las Olas Isles. Majors became an international star in 1973 when he debuted in the title role of TV hit “The Six Million Dollar Man,” which is nearly $42 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. Not Messi money, but not bad.

Staff writer Ben Crandell can be reached at bcrandell@sunsentinel.com. Follow on Instagram @BenCrandell and Twitter @BenCrandell.

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