Lionel Messi due to arrive in Miami early this week

Inter Miami head coach Tata Martino speaks during a press conference at the Florida Blue Training Center on Monday, July 10, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.


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David Beckham, donning a black and pink Inter Miami ball cap, sat in a bucket lift high above Wynwood over the weekend watching in admiration as Argentine artist Maxi Bagnasco put the finishing touches on his massive Lionel Messi mural, one of several that have popped up in the area as South Florida awaits the arrival this week of the soccer icon.

Messi, the reigning Argentine World Cup champion and arguably the greatest player of all time, is heading to Inter Miami early this week after a Caribbean vacation with his family. He is scheduled to be formally introduced at an “Unveil” ceremony Sunday at DRV PNK Stadium along with his former FC Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets, who is also joining Inter Miami.

Details on how fans can attend the ceremony will be announced by Tuesday.

The third new marquee player, former Barcelona defender Jordi Alba, is a maybe for the event as his wife is expecting their third child any day. The welcome week for the trio began Monday as newly hired coach Tata Martino, a native of Messi’s hometown of Rosario, conducted his first practice.

South Florida soccer fans are buzzing, nobody more than legendary announcer Ray Hudson, the former Fort Lauderdale Striker known for his masterful turns of phrase and world-famous “Magisterial!” calls on Messi goals over the years. Hudson played for the Strikers in the 1970s and 1980s, and went on to coach the Miami Fusion, South Florida’s first MLS team, which played at Lockhart Stadium, on the same parcel of land where Messi, Busquets and Alba will play at DRV PNK.

“I have never been at a loss for words, but I’ve looked through my English lexicon and I cannot find a word that truly encompasses this whole dream come true other than surreal,” Hudson said. “It’s Hollywood stuff nobody would believe. Ted Lasso’s got nothing on this. Somehow the Mas brothers and Beckham pulled this kangaroo out of their magic hats and absolutely staggered the world of sports. It was on headline news in Iceland. In New Zealand. In Outer Mongolia. Messi to Inter Miami at the apex of his career.”

How big is it?

“It’s like Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven have arrived in a museum and said `We’d like to play together. You want to hang our works in your museum?’” Hudson said. “And then the ownership’s clear vision that they need a world class coach, and they get that, as well. Tata Martino’s a tremendous coach who had phenomenal success in Atlanta. He really knows the league, had an amazing career, and `Oh, yeah, by the way, he was born in the same city as Leo Messi.’ The words just can’t describe this mosaic of absolute bewilderment of how they’ve all come together for this go around with these players of such supreme technique and speed of thought.”

Martino, who coached Messi, Busquets and Alba at FC Barcelona and coached Messi with the Argentine national team, takes over a team in last place in the Eastern Conference with the second-worst record in the league (5-13-3) with 13 games remaining in the regular season. He will coach Miami for the first time on the road Saturday against St. Louis City SC. Messi and friends are expected to debut July 21 in the Leagues Cup opener against Mexican team Cruz Azul.

Inter Miami is coming off a 2-2 tie against D.C. United, the team’s third tie in a row. Both Miami goals were scored by local teenagers, products of the club’s youth academy – 18-year-old Benjamin Cremaschi of Key Biscayne and 19-year-old Noah Allen of Pembroke Pines. Five teenagers and one 20-year-old were on the field for Miami Saturday night filling in for a roster depleted by injuries and national team Gold Cup appearances.

Martino watched from the stands as interim coach Javi Morales led the squad against D.C.

“One of the positives I saw was the great performance of the youngsters and the commitment they showed, the way they are handling this responsibility that is coming earlier than expected,” Martino said. “Those young players are in a situation they probably never imagined at the start of the season. That is very interesting, and we can only imagine what this team will look like in another month.”

The coach deflected questions about how he plans to blend Messi, Busquets and Alba into the squad, saying he is uncomfortable answering that question until they are officially signed and in camp. He last spoke to Messi in Rosario in late-June.

Hudson reminds fans that Martino should not be expected to perform miracles.

“It’s not going to be easy for Tata to integrate them into the team, this is going to take time,” Hudson said. “We will not see it this season, I can almost guarantee you. You’ll see improvement, you’ll see the promise of magic coming through before your eyes, between the three of them magical connected football, just like they did in Barcelona, embroidered by silk thread of skillful beauty.

“They were like three dolphins chattering to each other in their own language. Nobody understood it. And they’re still more than capable of playing world class football. But can Tata create the right mix around them and improve his team to be the setting for these spectacular diamonds?

“When you look at the supporting cast, these guys are going to be challenged like never before. They’ll be under scrutiny of the world to live up to the expectations of supporting World Cup winners and Euro winners. It’s nothing less than footballing royalty that are coming. These jet pilots are going to be playing with kids on bikes. It’s going to take time, but Tata knows what it takes. He knows this isn’t all sun and rainbows here, even with Messi and Busquets and Alba.”

Ian Fray, the 20-year-old Coconut Creek native who started the past few games, said it has been a seamless transition from previous coach Phil Neville to Morales to Martino. He is eager to welcome his new world-class teammates and feels the young players are ready.

“It feels really natural,” Fray said. “Really classy guy, and I can’t wait to get started. Everyone knows they’re great players coming, everyone’s excited. I have imagined (being on the field with them) and it’s hard to picture. It’s going to be amazing. We’ve shown fight. We’re from here, Miami, Broward, Coconut Creek, and we’ll fight for our team. It’s how we were raised.”

Inter Miami defender Ian Fray (24) speaks during a press conference at the Florida Blue Training Center on Monday, July 10, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. MATIAS J. OCNER [email protected]

As for Hudson, he also is having a hard time imagining the soon-to-be Inter Miami roster.

“This million mega-watt arc lamp that’s going to illuminate this area, we are all so lucky in South Florida,” Hudson said. “Shakespeare called it outrageous fortune. It’s a bizarro world, but for us in South Florida, it’s a dreamland. Can you imagine Leo stopping in at that Dunkin Donuts on Commercial Boulevard with Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets behind him before they get on I-95 and hop back down to Miami? (laughing).

“I’ll just be sitting outside on the Adirondack chair listening to the crowd on game nights. I can hear the crowds, that’s how close I live to the stadium. So, that would be pretty cool in itself, a surreal moment, drinking my beer with Zara the cat on my lap, and thinking in my mind’s eye that Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are playing there under Tata Martino and the cat is just going to shake her head and look at me and say ‘Meow’.”

This story was originally published July 10, 2023, 3:45 PM.

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Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls and has been the soccer writer and University of Miami basketball beat writer for 25 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.


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