FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi made a memorable debut for Inter Miami.
The game’s tallest player – a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner – scored a free kick from about 25 meters away in the 94th minute to give Inter Miami a 2-1 win over Mexican side Cruz Azul in Friday night’s League Cup.
His left foot sent the ball over a wall of four Cruz Azul defenders and into the top left corner of the net, arguably the greatest moment in Inter Miami’s short history. Play continued for about a minute before the referee blew the whistle and fireworks erupted in the night sky.
Welcome Leo He waved to fans while sitting on the bench. Waved to them while he warmed up. Waved at them while he was actually in the game.
And if that wasn’t enough, he saved his best moment for last. He watched the ball go into the net, something he had already done some 800 times for club and country, then sprinted to the right corner of the pitch and leaped into the arms of his team-mates.
Messi checked in early in the second half and Inter Miami led 1-0. He hugged the player he was replacing, midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, and then trotted onto the pitch while the estimated crowd of 21,000 spectators all appeared to have stood, almost all with cell phones in hand to capture the moment.
It took Inter Miami four years of planning and two years of actual work to bring Messi to the club.
“It’s worth it,” co-owner David Beckham said earlier in the week.
When the half-time whistle sounded, no one left their seat. The reason: Messi was on the field. At the break, he warmed up with the other reserve players for about five minutes before they all went to the dressing room.
Then fans could finally put down their phones and take a deep breath. At least temporarily. The wait officially began: when will Messi arrive? As the second half began, he began warming up, jogging around behind the end line near the Miami fan area and the fans roared with delight as he waved to them.
And about eight minutes into the second half, the answer: It was Messi time.
Inter Miami’s first goal The Messi era was shot by Robert Taylor, who picked up a long cross from Robbie Robinson, moved into the box and fired a low shot from inside the far post to take a 1-0 lead late in the first half.
Messi jumped up from his seat, threw his hands in the air, applauded several times and smiled widely.
Cruz Azul leveled the game just after Messi checked in and had plenty of chances to take the lead late on. But the final act belonged to Messi, a fairy tale ending as there has ever been.
Team officials said all tickets are available – about 21,000, in a newly expanded stadium – were sold. Messi arrived with the team about two hours before the game started, dressed in team colors – pink t-shirt, black shorts. As he entered the tunnel leading to the locker room, he stopped to take a few photos and shake hands.
He was hugged and exchanged a few words with LeBron James — another man who knows a thing or two about a highly acclaimed move to Miami after joining the Heat in 2010 and winning his first two NBA titles in a four-year stint — en route to the bench. Messi took his place and watched as his new team began their new era in the all-pink kit, shorts and socks.
Almost every seat was taken, many by people wearing newly purchased Miami shirts with Messi’s name on the back. They called his name a few times and waved flags with his name and number.
It’s been a bit of a mystery in recent days how often Messi, an Argentinian world champion and someone Beckham calls the greatest player of all time, would be on the field in his debut. New coach Tata Martino said he will leave that decision to Messi who hasn’t played much lately and is getting back in shape.
Messi signed a 2 1/2 year deal with Inter Miami that will net him between $50m and $60m a year – and almost certainly more than $1m per game. Some fans paid well over $1,000 for tickets to Friday’s game, although the price on the resale market dropped significantly in the hours leading up to the game.
Beckham was on the field about three hours before the game started and took a video with his phone while scanning the empty seats. Messi shirts were stocked in the team store at the stadium and entrepreneurs sold unofficial Messi shirts on the street leading to the venue.
It was a meeting of the GOATs at Messi’s debut game: James and Serena Williams were there – like Messi in football, they are in talks about the ‘greatest of all time’ when it comes to the NBA and tennis. Music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan were in attendance, as were Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Kim Kardashian, who said one of their sons had a specific reason why he had to attend.
Whatever the case, it was a massive night for football in the US – Messi made his debut in Major League Soccer while on the other side of the world, the US women’s team opened their World Cup defense against Vietnam in New Zealand.
The League Cup is a tournament between clubs from the MLS and the Liga MX, the top Mexican league. Cruz Azul won the first version in 2019.
Neither club had much success this season. Inter Miami has the fewest points in the MLS standings; Cruz Azul is the only team in the Mexican league without a point in the first three games of the season.