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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Gainesville, UF soccer community reacts to Lionel Messi’s move to U.S.

The 35-year-old Argentinian soccer star was officially introduced to Inter Miami fans July 16

Thousands of fans broke through security at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale while stormy weather ambushed their chance to witness American soccer history Sunday.

They scurried for shelter to hide from the elements and risked being struck by lightning.

As the rain cleared, the masses filled the seats with no room to spare for those who snuck in. The introduction of the team's ownership and newest addition Spaniard Sergio Busquets got the ceremony started. Then, the real show began.

The crowd of more than 18,000 people stood tall. They couldn’t handle their excitement. 

They were about to see Messi.

That same level of excitement can be found in Gainesville’s soccer community — almost 270 miles away — with the news of international soccer star Lionel Messi signing to Inter Miami.

Messi joins the Major League Soccer club after winning multiple club trophies in Europe, seven Ballon d’Or awards and the 2022 FIFA World Cup for Argentina.

The move is a shock for many in Gainesville’s soccer community, including Keneil Gibbs, a 23-year-old UF sports management graduate student.

“Arguably the greatest player ever and he’s coming to the United States, going to play in the MLS,” Gibbs said. “It seems so unreal to me he’s even still signed here and coming here to play.”

In 2013, Gibbs moved to Jacksonville from Jamaica with his dad. He played soccer through high school and now he works as an equipment manager for UF’s soccer team while working toward a master’s degree in sports management.

He expects soccer to grow throughout Florida. It starts with Messi, and then players overseas will see the potential, Gibbs said.

“With [Messi] coming here, there will be more focus here,” Gibbs said. “Like yesterday he was in Publix for example. You saw the pictures, everyone was there wanting a picture with Messi.”

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Messi arrived in Florida July 15 and immediately embraced his inner Florida man, shopping at Publix with his family.

Julia Weber, a UF sports management graduate student, believes his arrival not only benefits U.S. soccer but can also potentially benefit soccer’s outreach in Gainesville, she said.

Weber was born and raised in Germany and watched European soccer games with her father growing up. She gave up playing soccer during her teenage years but still wanted to be around the sport.

Now at 24 years old, Weber joined Arsenal’s staff in 2019, represented Germany with the German Football Association in Qatar during the 2022 World Cup and currently studies in Gainesville.

There’s a common belief among Europeans that Americans don’t know much about soccer, but Weber said a lot of dedication to the sport can be found at UF with multiple supporters of the Premier League and Bundesliga.

“I would have to get up at 7:30 in the morning on a Sunday to watch it, and I’m like ‘How do you guys do that?’” Weber said. “The dedication is real.”

Weber believes Messi’s move will direct locals to attend and follow more UF soccer games.

Jose Pino, a 25-year-old graduate student at Full Sail University, lives in Gainesville and plays in Sunday leagues across the city. He also hosts two Spanish language soccer podcasts on YouTube.

Pino has followed Messi from the moment the soccer player was introduced as the No. 10 at FC Barcelona in 2008. 

Knowing that Messi is so close — within an hour and a half drive from an MLS stadium — he plans to watch the legend in person. Gainesville and the rest of Florida look to be doing the same.

“Everyone wants to go to watch him, and everyone’s talking about him,” Pino said.

The world will be exposed to Miami Messi in his debut match against Cruz Azul July 21 at DRV PNK Stadium. The match will be broadcast on AppleTV+. The cheapest ticket is $250.

Contact Brandon Hernandez at Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001

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Brandon Hernandez

Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.

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