Lionel Messi changes Inter Miami player ritual with atmosphere changed | Football | Sport

The arrival of Lionel Messi has changed life at Inter Miami both on and off the pitch faster than anyone was truly prepared for. That’s the verdict from voices in and around the club who have seen the Florida-based team explode from a community-based outfit to the highest-profile franchise in Major League Soccer overnight.

Messi sent shockwaves through global football when it was announced that the Wolrd Cup-winning captain had agreed to join the David Beckham-owned club in the summer, turning down a mega-money deal in Saudi Arabia in the process.

The Argentine’s impact has been instant, almost doubling attendance at home matches and selling out Miami’s fixtures on the road. The hype has not been without reason either. In 14 appearances since his arrival, the Barcelona great has scored 11 times and helped his new club to win their first-ever trophy.

But such a turnaround in fortunes has caught some of the Inter Miami loyalists off guard. Before Messi arrived in Miami the players would follow a matchday ritual whereby they would meet at the nearby training ground before taking the short walk together into the DRV PNK Stadium.

Travelling along an enclosed path flanked by barriers, fans were encouraged to line the route, interacting with the players and staff who would routinely sign autographs and pose for selfies.

But with unprecedented numbers of ‘new’ fans wanting to catch a glimpse of a global sporting icon, that has all ended. Now the team climbs on board a team bus and is driven 150 yards to the stadium.

Green Lot Gang Inter Miami supporters’ group member Mike Longin told the Guardian: “What made Inter Miami special early on was we had a great supporter group and ownership was really close with the fans.

“My son has thrown an American football back and forth with [co-owner] Jorge Mas. I’ve drunk a beer with David Beckham. The club did a lot to build outreach. It’s different now. It’s gone from a family atmosphere to a professional atmosphere, which you’d expect. We were a young club and we grew up overnight.”

The dramatic shift in experience for hardcore fans has also been felt by the club’s regular reporters. Where once it was normal for just two or three journalists to be in attendance at training sessions, Messi’s first Miami outing attracted 500 accreditation requests.

It’s a real eye-opener for the Miami Herald’s Michelle Kaufman who has covered association football since the 1990s. She told the Guardian: “Before he got here, there were only a handful of us that covered the team. At most training sessions, there was somewhere between one and three of us. Four would have been a big crowd. Some days I was the only one out there with Phil Neville and the rest of the players. At a typical game there were maybe a dozen, 15 of us in the press box.

“The minute he got here, everything changed. They have metal detectors for us to walk through at training. For his first training session, there were 500 credential requests. I think 200 were granted. There was a helicopter overhead and a drone. It’s completely different from how it was.”

Inter Miami’s new-found popularity has certainly been a huge boost for the club’s profile, finances and aspirations of becoming a dominant force in the MLS but the match-day experience leaves a bit to be desired according to Longin.

He explained: “[Messi’s arrival] has had a somewhat negative impact on the match experience, because so many people are only there to see Messi; they don’t care about the rest of the team. When he’s not playing and he’s in his box in the stand, people are jumping over chairs to try and see him.

“We knew things would change. But we weren’t prepared for how much it would change and how much it would feel different. Messi didn’t play our last home game, and it was kind of nice to feel like this was the old stadium, this was the old tailgate. It kind of felt normal, and then Messi walked into his box, and it was, ‘OK, Messi is here. This is the new normal.’”

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