Fort Lauderdale, FL –
Lionel Messi is now officially an Inter Miami player.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner as the best player in the world checked into the new Major League Soccer club for the first time on Friday night, starting the second half of the League Cup tournament between Inter Miami and Cruz Azul.
He hugged his replacement, midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, and trotted onto the field in what appeared to be an estimated 21,000 spectators all standing, almost all of them on the phone trying to capture the moment.
At Inter Miami, it took four years of planning and two years of action to bring Messi to the club.
“It’s worth it,” co-owner David Beckham said earlier in the week.
Messi wasn’t in the starting line-up but came out with his team leading 1-0. When the half-time whistle blew, no one left their seats. Because Messi was on the field. He warmed up with the rest of the substitutes for about five minutes during the break before everyone went to the locker room.
That’s when fans finally got to put down their phones and take a breather. Temporarily anyway. It’s officially been a long time coming: When will Messi join? He resumed his warm-up as the second half began, jogging behind the end line near Miami’s supporters section, and the fans cheered as he waved.
And at about eight minutes into the second half, the answer was, “It’s Messi’s time.”
Messi’s first goal for Inter Miami was scored by Robert Taylor, who took a long cross from Robbie Robinson, entered the box and sent a low shot inside the far post behind the goal to give them a 1-0 lead at the end of the first half.
Messi jumped out of his seat, threw his hands in the air, gave a few rounds of applause, and smiled broadly.
Team officials said all tickets for the newly expanded stadium — about 21,000 — have been sold.
Messi arrived with the team in a pink T-shirt and black shorts in the team’s colors about two hours before the game started. As he entered the tunnel leading to the locker room, he stopped for a few photos and a handshake.
On his way to the bench, he got a hug and a few words from LeBron James (a man who joined the Heat in 2010 and has some knowledge of his highly publicized move to Miami after staying there for four years to win his first two NBA titles). Messi sat in his seat and watched the new team in all-pink jerseys, pants and socks witness the beginning of a new era.
Nearly every seat was taken, many wearing newly purchased Miami jerseys with Messi’s name on the back. They chanted his name several times and waved flags bearing his name and number.
It’s been a bit of a mystery in recent days how Argentina’s World Cup champion Messi, whom Beckham calls the greatest player of all time, will be on the pitch in his debut. New manager Tata Martino said he would leave the decision to Messi, who has not played much lately and is trying to get the game back on track.
Messi has signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Inter Miami that will pay him $50-$60 million a year and almost certainly more than $1 million a game. Some fans paid well over $1,000 for tickets to Friday’s game, but prices on the resale market had dropped significantly in the hours before the game.
Messi was introduced to his new home fans on Sunday and trained for the first time as a member of the club on Tuesday.
Also not in Friday’s starting line-up: newly acquired Sergio Busquets, former Messi teammate and another past World Cup winner.
Beckham was on the field about three hours before the game started, taking video with his cell phone while checking the empty seats. Team shops inside the stadium were lined with Messi jerseys, while entrepreneurs sold unofficial Messi shirts on the roads leading to the stadium.
It was the GOATs who gathered for Messi’s debut match. James and Serena Williams were there too – much like Messi in soccer, they’re being talked about as “the greatest ever” when it comes to the NBA and tennis. Music legends Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan were also in attendance, as was Kim Kardashian, who said one of her sons had a special reason to attend.
“He’s so excited to meet Messi,” Kardashian said.
Regardless, it was a great night for American football. Messi made his first appearance in Major League Soccer, and on the other side of the world, the US women’s team opened their World Cup title defense against Vietnam in New Zealand.
Messi decided to join Inter Miami in June. After spending the last two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, he considered a return to Barcelona, the club where he spent most of his career.
But Inter Miami and MLS have found a way to win the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, setting the stage for unprecedented times for the club after a largely unsuccessful first four seasons.
The League Cup is a tournament between clubs in the MLS and Mexico’s top league, Liga MX. Cruz Azul won the inaugural competition in 2019.
Neither club has had much success this season. Inter Miami have the fewest points in the MLS standings. Cruz Azul are the only team in the Mexican League who have yet to record a standings point through the first three games of the season.