FORT LAUDERDALE: Lionel Messi made an unforgettable debut for Inter Miami.
The game's greatest player — a seven-time Ballon d'Or winner — scored on a free kick from about 25 yards in the 94th minute, giving Inter Miami a 2-1 win over Mexican club Cruz Azul on Friday night in the Leagues Cup.
His left foot sent the ball over a wall of four Cruz Azul defenders and into the upper left corner of the net, unquestionably the greatest moment in Inter Miami's brief history. Play resumed for roughly a minute before the referee's whistle blew, and fireworks shot into the night sky.
Making a memorable start
Welcome, Leo. He waved at fans while he was seated on the bench. Waved at them while he was warming up. Waved at them while he was actually in the game.
And if that wasn't enough, he saved his best moment for the end. He watched the ball sail into the net, something he's done about 800 times before for club and country, then sprinted to the right corner of the field and leaped into the arms of teammates.
Messi checked in early in the second half with Inter Miami leading 1-0. He hugged the player he was replacing, midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, then trotted onto the field as the estimated crowd of 21,000 all seemed to be standing, almost all of them with phones out to chronicle the moment.
It took Inter Miami four years of planning and two years of actual pursuing to bring Messi to the club.
“Worth it,” co-owner David Beckham said earlier in the week.
How right he was.
Nobody even left their seats when the halftime whistle blew. The reason: Messi was on the field. He warmed up for about 5 minutes during intermission with the other reserves before they all left for the locker room.
That's when the fans, finally, could put their phones down and take a breath. Temporarily, anyway. The wait was officially on: When was Messi coming in? He resumed warmups while the second half was getting under way, jogging around behind the end line near Miami's supporter section, and fans roared in delight when he gave them a wave.
And about eight minutes into the second half, the answer: It was Messi time.
The first Inter Miami goal of the Messi era was scored by Robert Taylor, who took a long cross from Robbie Robinson, moved into the box and sent a low drive off the inside of the far post and into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead late in the first half.
Messi leaped from his seat, threw his hands in the air, applauded several times and broke into a wide smile.
Cruz Azul tied the game shortly after Messi checked in and had plenty of chances to take a late lead. But the final act belonged to Messi, a storybook ending if there ever was one.
Team officials said all tickets — about 21,000, in a newly expanded stadium — were sold. Messi arrived with the team about two hours before game time, dressed in the team colors — pink T-shirt, black shorts. He stopped for a few photos and handshakes as he entered the tunnel leading to the locker room.
He got a hug and shared a few words with LeBron James — another guy who knows a thing or two about making a highly celebrated move to Miami, after he joined the Heat in 2010 and won his first two NBA titles in a four-year stay — on his way to the bench. Messi took his seat and watched his new team, in the all-pink jersey, shorts and socks, start his new era.
Almost every seat was filled, many by people wearing newly acquired Miami jerseys with Messi's name on the back. They chanted his name a few times, waved flags bearing his name and number.
It was a bit of a mystery in recent days how much Messi, a World Cup champion for Argentina and someone who Beckham calls the best player ever, would be on the field in his debut. New coach Tata Martino said he would leave that decision up to Messi, who hasn't played much of late and is working his way back into match shape.
Messi signed a 2 1/2-year contract with Inter Miami that will pay him between $50 million and $60 million annually — and almost certainly more than $1 million per match. Some fans paid well over $1,000 for tickets to Friday's match, though the price on the resale market was dropping considerably in the hours before game time.
Beckham was on the field about three hours before game time, taking a video with his phone as he scanned the empty seats. Messi jerseys were stocked at the team store inside the stadium, and entrepreneurs were selling unofficial Messi jerseys on the road leading to the venue.
It was a gathering of GOATs at Messi's debut match: James and Serena Williams were there — like Messi in soccer, they're in the conversation of "greatest of all time" when it comes to the NBA and tennis. Music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan showed up, as did Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and Kim Kardashian arrived saying one of her sons had a particular reason why he had to attend.
“He's so excited to see Messi,” Kardashian said.
No matter what, it was a massive night for soccer in the U.S. — Messi making his first Major League Soccer appearance while, on the other side of the globe, the U.S. women's team opened its World Cup title defense in New Zealand against Vietnam.
The Leagues Cup is a tournament between clubs from MLS and Liga MX, the top Mexican league. Cruz Azul won the inaugural version in 2019.
Neither club has enjoyed much success this season. Inter Miami has the fewest points in the MLS standings; Cruz Azul is the only team in the Mexican league yet to record a standings point through the season’s first three matches.