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July 20, 2023

MIAMI, Florida (AP):

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 last year’s World Cup in Qatar. A beer 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 imminent arrival of the Argentine football 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 also brings a note of sadness as fans know that at age 36, he is nearing the end of his career.

Messi announced on June 7 that he would play for Inter Miami, expected to revitalise football in the United States of America (USA) 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.

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 last year’s World Cup, a match Argentina won on penalties.

“I love that he’s in Miami because my children will be able to experience him as I experienced (fellow Argentina football 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 the beginning of his retirement.”

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

Alvarez and his brother Cristian had the original mural with Messi’s face painted in the restaurant in 2018 when many people criticised the football 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.

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 “!Anda pa’ alla bobo!” “Go over there, fool!” is immortalised along with a giant drawing of the football star.

Angry after Argentina’s heated victory over the Netherlands in the quarter-finals of the last year’s World Cup, Messi said those words to a Dutch player passing by while he was being interviewed.

Messi, known for his calm and cautious 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.

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