Fort Lauderdale, FL –
Some paid hundreds of dollars to say they were watching Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami debut in the stadium. Some paid thousands of dollars to buy seats. The team’s owners have plowed well over $100 million into taking a chance at a moment like this.
So far the money seems to be working well.
From a sector where make-up is impossible, Messi capped off the opening night of his new club by delivering something unforgettable. Inter Miami won 2-1 against Mexican club Cruz Azul in the League Cup match on Friday night when his magical left foot landed a free kick into the top left corner of the goal in the 94th minute.
“What I saw was a goal,” Messi said in an on-field interview during the post-match celebration. “I saw the goal. I knew I had to score.”
He says it very simply. He looks so easy too.
The game’s greatest active player, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and World Cup winner, scored the winning goal as he flew the ball over the walls of four Cruz Azul defenders. This was undoubtedly the best moment in Inter Miami’s short history. Fireworks exploded into the night sky, and play resumed for about a minute until the referee blew his whistle.
“This is a movie we’ve seen before,” said Inter Miami manager Tata Martino.
Messi has been a showman since his debut with the Major League Soccer club. He sat on a bench and waved to his fans. He waved at them while he was warming up. He waved at them while he was actually in the game.
Even if that wasn’t enough, he saved the best moments for last. He watched the ball go into the net, but, as he has done about 800 times for clubs and national teams, he sprinted to the right corner of the field and flew into his teammate’s arms.
Team owners David Beckham, Jorge Mas and Jose Mas waited for him to leave the pitch. Jorge Mas kissed the superstar’s sweaty cheek. Some of the Cruz Azul players just sat there and watched. They will have stories to tell about how it took Messi an incredible moment to beat them.
At Inter Miami, it took four years of planning and two years of action to bring Messi to the club.
“It’s worth it,” Beckham said earlier in the week.
He was right.
“This is the moment for this country,” Beckham said. “It’s a great moment for the league and a very proud moment for us.”
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 checked in early in the second half with Inter Miami leading 1-0. 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.
Had he missed the free-kick, the match would have gone to penalties. Instead, Messi ended the match on his own terms.
“It was the last play of the game and I didn’t go to the penalty shootout because I wanted to score,” Messi said.
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.
Cruz Azul scored the equalizer just after Messi had checked in, giving them a good chance of taking the lead in the closing stages. But the final act was Messi’s, and if there was a story, it was the end of the story.
“It’s a common occurrence for him,” Martino said. “It looks perfectly normal, but it’s not… he’s the GOAT we’re talking about.”
It was the GOATs who gathered for Messi’s debut match. LeBron James and Serena Williams were there too – just as Messi is to soccer, they are the center of all-time greats talking about the NBA and tennis. Music legends Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa also showed up, along with Kim Kardashian, who said one of his sons had a special reason to attend.
“He’s so excited to meet Messi,” Kardashian said.
Everyone did. James, who knows a little about his highly publicized move to Miami after joining the Heat in 2010 and winning his first two NBA titles in a four-year stay, greeted Messi with a long hug when the team arrived on the field. And after the goal, James acknowledged his greatness.
James tweeted “unbelievable” with a goat emoji for emphasis.
Regardless, it was a great night for American football. Messi made his first appearance in Miami, and on the other side of the world, the US women’s team opened their World Cup title defense with a 3-0 victory over Vietnam in New Zealand.
Messi has signed a two-and-a-half-year deal that will almost certainly pay him $50-$60 million a year and more than $1 million per game.
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.
As the game began, Messi sat in his seat and watched as the new team began a new era in all-pink jerseys, pants and socks. 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.
The excitement continued to build until the end. And Messi made sure the new fans would go home satisfied.
“This win was very important for us,” Messi said.