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The penthouse at the Regalia building in Sunny Isles, Florida, is like a Miami fever dream come to life.

Take a bit of “Scarface,” mix in some Versace and sprinkle in a dash of “Miami Vice” and you will end up with this 10,000-square-foot, three-level abode, 49 stories above the sands of Sunny Isles Beach. The multi-level living room looks out over the Atlantic Ocean, where sailboats and yachts dot the emerald-green water. Each of the unit’s six bedrooms have their own bathroom, every one of them with a toilet next to a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks the beach. If you want, all of Miami can see you taking care of business.

Walk through the $1 million (£792,300) master bathroom, trimmed in gold and Calacatta marble, and make a left. Keep walking, through the personal theater and the wine cellar, and you will arrive at an elevator. It is straight out of James Bond, a pneumatic tube that sends you up to the roof deck like a deposit at a drive-thru bank. Once you’re there, take a dip in the private pool or catch some rays on the balcony, which wraps around every inch of the place.

Privacy will not be an issue. The building has plenty of security, which is a good thing given some of the Regalia’s residents. Like Lionel Messi.

Arguably the greatest player in football history owns the ninth floor and his family stays regularly. He has made several visits to Miami over the years, each time reportedly falling a little more in love with the place. Spend a few days rubbing shoulders with the city’s wealthiest residents and it is not hard to see why. The private beaches, the nightlife, the exotic cars rumbling up and down Collins Ave in Miami Beach… parts of Miami are dripping with more opulence than any other place in the United States, a lifestyle that offers a strong pull to any high-profile athlete or celebrity.

Now, Messi says he will move here permanently. His eventual transfer to Major League Soccer side Inter Miami will be the richest deal in MLS history and among the highest-profile moves in the history of sports.

But Messi’s reality at Inter Miami will be a far cry from the Regalia penthouse.

The club plays 20 miles north at the DRV PNK Stadium (pronounced “Drive Pink” and named after sponsor AutoNation’s breast cancer awareness campaign) on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale. It is a modular, bare-bones, 19,100-seat venue plopped down in the middle of an industrial park and next to an airport for private planes. Drive up the road from the Regalia and you will be at the Ritz-Carlton. Drive up the road from DRV PNK Stadium and you will find a strip club or a body shop.

Inter Miami has plans for a new stadium, but it will not be ready for a few years. For now, they are here — in last place, with one of the worst average attendance figures in the league and operating under sanctions by MLS for past violations of the league’s roster rules. The club’s 50,000-square-foot training facility, which sits in the shadow of the Erector Set of a stadium, is exceptional, but in total the state of the club is far different than Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain. And that’s to say nothing of Messi’s potential South Florida teammates — there are no Xavis, Iniestas or Agueros on Inter Miami’s roster. Though that may soon change.

Walk through Miami, through Little Buenos Aires, Wynwood or Brickell, and you will quickly realize that Miami is ready for Messi.

But is Inter Miami ready for him?

Fame and historic sporting success tend to go hand-in-hand, but perhaps no athlete in the history of sports approaches Lionel Messi’s global ubiquity. His dizzying runs and physics-defying strikes have come at a time when they can be shared instantly, beamed to every corner of the planet. As a result, Messi is among the most famous people in the world.

The United States, though, can sometimes be slow to adapt and pockets still exist where Messi is unknown. Soccer — particularly the international game — has exploded in popularity over the past two decades, but it still has not entirely been mainstreamed in the States and you can see that in Fort Lauderdale.

“He’s just a guy who gets paid a lot of f—ing money to kick a ball,” says David, who owns Mr. Scooter, a moped repair shop located just up the road from Messi’s new home stadium.

Inter Miami is far from a cultural institution here, 30 miles north of downtown Miami, and there are several reasons for that. Inter Miami played its first game on March 1, 2020, but its first home match was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and they did not play at home in front of fans until May 9, 2021.

But other, similarly young MLS expansion clubs in places like Austin, Texas and Los Angeles have captivated locals almost immediately, even during rough times. LAFC, the league’s darlings at this point, have thrived on and off the field since their debut in 2018. Austin FC, which began play a year later than Inter Miami, drew an average of 8,000 more fans per home game than Inter Miami last year.

The scooter shop, along with the other businesses in the area of DRV PNK, doesn’t see much benefit from the traffic the stadium brings to the area, David says. Instead, he and others in the area are more inconvenienced than anything else, forced to close up shop or convert their businesses into parking lots on game days.

“I’d rather they have built the water park here,” says David, referring to an alternate plan for the land DRV PNK sits on. “But (Inter Miami co-owner David) Beckham outbid everybody else.”

Some locals have complained about the lack of development surrounding the stadium. An empty, overgrown grass lot that sits just south of the stadium was supposed to be a public park, but Inter’s ownership has said those plans got sidetracked by COVID-19. They filed for an extension on the plans, which pushed construction of the park back to July of this year. The lot remains untouched.

The club is set to move into a state-of-the-art stadium in 2025, which could potentially be the last year of Messi’s contract. It will sit on the site of a former golf course in the shadow of Miami International Airport. It’s hard to imagine a stadium on the site: the fairways are overgrown, the outhouses along the course tagged with graffiti. The soundtrack is a cacophony of automobile and air traffic. The soil, it was recently reported, is heavily contaminated with lead and arsenic.

It’s a far cry from where Beckham’s original ownership group started in 2014 when it presented ambitious plans for a waterfront stadium by Miami’s cruise ship terminal. Over the next eight years, Inter Miami would try and fail to secure that and three other sites. “Miami Freedom Park,” as club leadership is dubbing the mixed-use airport site, was a long-awaited triumph and it came with an intense political battle.

Inter Miami is owned by brothers Jose and Jorge Mas, along with Beckham. People close to the deal for Messi paint Jorge Mas as the driving force behind the acquisition, with Beckham riding shotgun.

Within MLS, Mas is viewed as ambitious, a dynamic figure who has attempted to push other team owners to loosen their wallets and dream a bit bigger. That sort of thinking, in a league that sometimes feels bereft of competitive and financial risk, has not always gone down well.

“Jorge is a big thinker,” says an upper-level executive at an MLS club who requested anonymity to protect his business relationships. “But he has also rubbed plenty of people the wrong way. During the (Messi) deal, it could be hard to tell what the reality of it was because he is always speaking in hyperbole. A lot of people weren’t happy with the way everything went — and they’re still not, you can see it in the rollout of the player.”

Indeed, MLS, and Inter Miami to a lesser extent, were caught off guard by Messi’s sudden announcement that he was choosing Inter Miami over Saudi Arabia or Barcelona. Across the league, sources close to the negotiations expressed uncertainty to The Athletic on whether Messi had even decided to come to Miami until just moments before his announcement, made in an interview with Barcelona-based newspapers Mundo Deportivo and Sport. It was Jorge Mas, not Inter Miami itself, who first indicated Messi’s acquisition, in his own way:

“I think (the way the entire deal went down) could’ve cost him if this hadn’t worked out,” the executive said. “But now he’s responsible for the biggest signing in the history of MLS. What can anybody tell him?”

There is plenty to tell Jorge Mas and others at Inter Miami about their roster. The club is in last place in the Eastern Conference and is under the guidance of interim coach Javi Morales after Phil Neville was sacked this month. Messi alone will not fix Inter Miami, which has suddenly been linked to any number of his former teammates, from Sergio Busquets and Angel Di Maria to Luis Suarez and Jordi Alba. Fans have thrown together “rumored starting XI” graphics that would easily run more than $100 million a year in salary.

None of that will work in MLS under current roster rules. And while Miami can pay Messi any amount of money they want — he is a “designated player”, a mechanism the league uses to limit a top player’s effect on the strict salary cap they have to work under — they will have to operate within the strict spending guidelines as they assemble the supporting cast. Mas and Miami have been penalized once for breaking those rules. Across the league, the team is under intense scrutiny as it prepares to overhaul its roster.

“Do they interpret the rule of law slightly differently in South Florida? There’s enough evidence to support that conclusion,” said another MLS executive who requested anonymity to protect his relationships within the league. “Basically anything goes down there.”

Whoever Messi ends up playing alongside, Inter Miami will play at DRV PNK. There have been rumors the club may move some games to Hard Rock Stadium, the 65,000-plus capacity home to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins that is located in Miami proper, but nothing concrete has emerged.

Pitch invaders have become a norm no matter where in the world Messi plays. It is clear that MLS, the cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as well as every venue that Inter Miami visits, will face security challenges.

The walk Messi will take from the training facility to the stadium will be a stark example of his new reality. DRV PNK has no locker rooms; on game days, Inter Miami players get ready at the adjacent training facility, pass through the double doors and stroll through a nondescript parking lot that will likely be mobbed by fans and journalists. They enter the stadium through a set of gates that Inter Miami’s fans use. It is more of a high school football vibe than a world-class soccer atmosphere.

Right now, it is sort of a cool gimmick. But if that practice remains, it will make it even more clear that Messi will be far away from Camp Nou, or Parc des Princes.

The doors swing open at a luxurious oceanfront property in Key Biscayne, located less than a 20-minute drive from downtown Miami. In steps Messi. It’s the summer of 2021 and Argentina has just been crowned champions of South America. Messi is holding the Copa America top scorer trophy in one hand and the tournament MVP trophy in the other.

Messi, along with an entourage of 20 family members and friends, arrived in Miami in two private jets. They headed to the five-bedroom mansion on the exclusive Mashta Island which belongs to Sergio Roitberg, a former television journalist who is now the president and CEO of NewLink Group, a global communications consultancy in Miami.

Roitberg was contacted by the head of Messi’s family office shortly after the Copa America win, Argentina’s first continental trophy since 1993. Messi was looking for a secluded spot to spend two weeks of uninterrupted vacation and Roitberg’s home was the ideal location.

“I figured it was for a footballer,” Roitberg told The Athletic over coffee at the bustling Golden Hog gourmet market in Key Biscayne. “I didn’t ask. His contact eventually told me that it was for Leo Messi.”

When Messi stepped inside the home he was greeted by Max, Roitberg’s youngest son and a massive fan of Argentina’s No 10.

“Hi, I’m Max,” said the boy.

Yo soy Leo,” Messi said as he carried the two latest additions to his overflowing trophy case.

The summer of 2021 changed Messi’s life. Years of failure with the national team came to an end at a half-empty Maracana with a 1-0 win over Brazil. When asked after the match about his summer vacation plans, Messi, who had lost four finals with Argentina, said: “This time it’ll be different.”

Those two weeks in Miami may have given Messi a glimpse of what the twilight of his career could look like. He was mobbed at local restaurants. Residents parked their boats outside Roitberg’s home, chanted Messi’s name and pleaded for autographs. Neighborhood parents dropped their children off at the gates of Roitberg’s mansion at 7 a.m. carrying lunch boxes so that their kids would be well nourished as they waited and hoped to see Messi.

“During that time, people joked that Messi was going to buy my house,” Roitberg said. “I think that Messi’s connection and interest with Inter Miami began that summer. Ever since the Copa America, Messi has been able to accept his history.”

Roitberg has been in Miami since 1990. For more than 30 years, he has seen the city and South Florida continue to welcome families from all over the world. Its diversity and culture are draws for people from every tax bracket. Miami has always been the home of pop culture icons and celebrities, but Roitberg believes Messi’s presence will be unprecedented.

“This place is going to explode — there hasn’t been an international celebrity of Messi’s status in a city like Miami,” Roitberg says. “Every broker in Miami wants to sell Messi his next home. There are 4,000 brokers who think they’ll be the one.”

Roitberg believes what Messi experienced two years ago in the city will be magnified once he calls it home. He referred to Miami as “a friendly city”, but it’s one where Messi will not go unnoticed.

“Messi knows that here in Miami he’ll be loved,” says Roitberg. “They’re going to take care of him. And he’s at a stage of his career where he relishes that type of relationship with the fans. He’s going to have to understand where he is.”

Manuela Usandizaga, 23, a University of Miami law student, agrees. “I don’t think Messi can live a normal life in Miami,” she says. “I don’t think he can go out. He’s like a god here.”

Miami Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava is more optimistic. Speaking with The Athletic, Levine Cava says Messi’s signing secures Miami’s reputation as “the soccer capital of the United States.” She believes Messi will lift soccer in Miami.

“We have so many celebrities here that people are kind of, I’m not gonna say they’re blase, but it’s kind of the fabric of our life that more and more stars of entertainment, political stars, international stars, everybody’s coming to Miami,” says Levine Cava. “So it’s just part of the fabric.”

She adds that as sheriff of Miami Dade County, her office and local law enforcement are “well prepared”.

“There are so many venues where locals rub shoulders with stars,” she continues. “I’ve never heard of an incident where there’s been any trouble about that… He can avoid that if he wants, or he can just go with the flow.”

It’s impossible to discuss Messi’s decision to come to MLS without talking about the potential economic impact — a topic of conversation in the much more modest Little Buenos Aires.

At Nahuen Gourmet Market, located on Collins Avenue, a photo of Messi kissing the World Cup adorns the entrance. “Crimen,” a 2006 hit song by the late Argentine rocker Gustavo Cerati, plays over the speakers. The delicious smell of handmade dulce de leche empanadas and hot sandwiches welcomes visitors in search of nostalgia and a taste of Argentina.

Estela, the location’s manager, calls Nahuen “The best Argentine spot in this area.” She’s visibly excited about her hero coming to Miami and says that all small business owners stand to benefit from Messi’s arrival.

“Just imagine if he came to our store. We’d be so incredibly fortunate,” she says. “That day will come. The day we won the World Cup, this place erupted. That picture of Messi on our door, he’s always with us and he always will be. We’re Argentines. We have the same blood as Messi.”

Javier, a grizzled 54-year-old, walks along the sidewalk nearby, shirtless with a beach towel slung over his shoulder. He is visiting from Buenos Aires and it’s apparent by his tan that he’s enjoying his winter escape.

“He chose one of the best cities in the world,” Javier says.

You don’t have to go far to find a dissenting opinion about Messi’s arrival, though — even in Little Buenos Aires. Across the street from Nahuen, Gabe Jaksic works as an artist at Oriana tattoo studio. He immigrated from Argentina to the U.S. in 1995.

“Nobody here really cares about soccer,” Jaksic says as tattoo guns buzz away. “Miami isn’t a soccer town and it probably never will be. People will care while he’s here but after he leaves, it’ll go right back to how it was.”

Jaksic’s opinion is at least partially rooted in fact. Miami’s previous top-flight team, the Miami Fusion, lasted a few short years in MLS before folding. The area has had other franchises throughout the past half-century. The most successful of those, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, earned a strong following in the 1970s and early ’80s before collapsing alongside the league they played in. Ironically, they played at a now-defunct stadium that sat where DRV PNK does today.

The area’s complicated relationship with the game, though, largely mirrors soccer’s perception in American society. Soccer, the sport as a whole, has largely “made it” in the United States. The U.S. national teams, men’s and women’s, enjoy robust support. But American club soccer is different. Inter Miami’s attendance numbers are dreadful — their average of 16,687 is 25th of the 29 teams — and MLS continues to endeavor to captivate the greater populous that international soccer and European club soccer have done.

Jaksic laughs when he hears the suggestion Messi might someday hit up the place across the street for an empanada.

“Do you think he’s going to come walking down this street?” he asks rhetorically. “Messi will never come to this area. I don’t really care that he’s coming. Even if people in this neighborhood would want to go out and see him, they won’t be able to afford it. The tickets are going to be insane.”

Tickets to see Messi play home or away in MLS have reached astronomical heights, even before anybody knows exactly when he will debut.

Back at the Regalia, Mark Pordes and Adam Kauffman, the brokers who sold Messi the ninth-floor unit, are hoping they might see him again. Pordes, who sold Brazilian legend Romario a unit elsewhere in Miami, has heard the rumors that Messi may be bringing along a few of his high-profile, football-playing friends. If Messi doesn’t want the penthouse, maybe one of them will.

Pordes can’t help but launch into a sales pitch, speaking of Miami’s appeal and rattling off A-listers who have a home in the area. Messi’s bear of a dog would be more than welcome in the building, Kaufmann says, and the place is centrally located between Miami proper and the training facility in Fort Lauderdale.

It’s easy to see Messi living here, and in Miami, with its beaches, high-end restaurants and massive Argentine population, which might even offer Lionel Messi a taste of home.

What remains harder to visualize is Messi playing in MLS and for Inter Miami, a last-place team that, until now, has struggled to fill its stadium. That likely won’t be an issue anymore.

(Top photo: GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)



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