The game’s greatest player — a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner — Lionel Messi 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 past a wall of four Cruz Azul defenders and into the top left corner of the net, undoubtedly the greatest moment in Inter Miami’s short history. Play continued for about a minute before the referee blew the whistle, and fireworks exploded into the night sky.
Welcome, Leo. He waved to the fans as he sat on the bench. Wave to them as he warms up. Wave to them while he’s actually in the game.
And if that wasn’t enough, he saved his best moment for last. He watched the ball sail into the net, something he had done some 800 times before for club and country, then ran to the right corner of the field and leaped into the arms of his teammates.
Messi checked in early in the second half with Inter Miami leading 1-0. He hugged the player he replaced, midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, then strode onto the field as an estimated 21,000 people appeared to stand, almost all with their phones out to record the moment.
It took Inter Miami four years of planning and two years of actual persistence to bring Messi to the club.
“It’s worth it,” co-owner David Beckham said earlier in the week.
How right he is.
No one even left their seats when halftime blew. The reason: Messi is on the field. He warmed up for about 5 minutes at intermission with the rest of the reserves before they all left the locker room.
Then, finally, fans could put down their phones and take a breath. Temporarily, anyway. The wait is official: When will Messi come in? He continued warmups as the second half began, jogging behind the end line near the Miami supporter section, and the fans roared with delight as he gave them a wave.
And about eight minutes into the second half, the answer: It’s Messi time.
Inter Miami’s first 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 jumped up from his chair, threw his hands in the air, clapped his hands several times and flashed a big smile.
Cruz Azul tied the game shortly after Messi checked in and had plenty of chances to take the lead late on. But the final act belonged to Messi, a storybook ending if ever there was one.
Team officials said all tickets — about 21,000, in a newly expanded stadium — have been sold. Messi arrived with the team about two hours before game time, wearing team colors — pink T-shirt, black shorts. He stopped for a few photos and a handshake as he entered the tunnel 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 high-profile 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 sat back and watched his new team, in all-pink jerseys, shorts and socks, begin their new era.
Almost every seat was filled, many of the people wearing newly acquired Miami jerseys with Messi’s name on the back. They chanted his name several times, waving flags bearing his name and number.
It has been a bit of a mystery in recent days how much Messi, a World Cup champion for Argentina and someone Beckham has called the best player ever, will be on the field in his debut. New coach Tata Martino said he would leave that decision up to Messi, who has not played in recent days 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 more than $1,000 for tickets to Friday’s game, though the price on the resale market dropped sharply in the hours leading up to game time.
Beckham was on the field about three hours before game time, taking video with his phone as he scanned the empty seats. Messi jerseys are stocked in the team store inside the stadium, and traders sell 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 “greatest of all time” conversation when it comes to the NBA and tennis. Music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan made an appearance, as did Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and Kim Kardashian arrived saying one of her children had a specific reason why she had to attend.
“He was excited to see Messi,” Kardashian said.
Regardless, it was a huge night for soccer in the US — Messi made his first Major League Soccer appearance while, on the other side of the world, the US women’s team opened their 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 that has not recorded a standing point in the first three matches of the season.