FLORIDA’S FORT LAUDERDALE — The launch of one of the most anticipated American sporting events in recent memory on Friday exceeded all expectations.
Inter Miami defeated Cruz Azul 2-1 in the Leagues Cup opening for both sides when Lionel Messi, the World Cup champion and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, came off the bench to score one of his signature free kicks in second-half stoppage time.
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At DRV PNK Stadium, where the south stands were full, Messi stopped warming up at 9:26 p.m. ET, grabbed his pink jersey and jogged to the halfway line. He then came on to replace midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, an 18-year-old who is also of Argentine heritage, in the 54th minute.
Fans had only seen Messi on the bench up to that point because the Miami substitutes oddly warmed up before the game and during the first half out of sight, most likely by the locker room.
With 55:30 left in the game, Messi made his first ever touch, but the only touch that mattered was the one he made after 90 minutes.
And so it was.
With his famed left foot, Messi curled the ensuing free kick into the top corner, whipping the sellout crowd of about 21,000 into a frenzy.
“For us, it was a very successful game. We wanted to win for these supporters and find a match like this one, Messi said on Apple TV.
“I would like to thank everyone. I’ve been treated so well here, so I’m delighted to return the favour.
The goal was the ideal beginning for Miami, which now has the poorest record in MLS.
Regarding his free kick, Messi added, “I knew it was the last chance.” “I simply made the usual effort, and fortunately the custodian was unable to collect the ball.
We are not in a good position in the league, thus winning is crucial for this club. Even if it’s a different competition, it will boost our spirits.
Every move Messi made prior to the score was welcomed with high anticipation, and when he sped past the Cruz Azul defence in the 67th minute, the roar from the crowd drowned out any little plane leaving the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport next door.
Naturally, the sceptics will point out that Messi showed little interest in going backwards during the game and that Cruz Azul’s tying goal was scored by Mexico international Uriel Antuna while Messi was on the field, but none of that mattered.
David Beckham, joint owner of Inter Miami, remarked that “it’s such a moment for this country.” “This is such an important time for the league. And we are quite proud of ourselves right now.
Messi had the best retort to those who claimed he was visiting South Beach for a farewell getaway.
“We should be surprised by what Messi did because it is a constant achievement,” remarked Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the head coach of Miami and a former coach of Messi’s at Barcelona and Argentina.
“For him [to sign with Miami], it was a decision related to his family and personal life, but he insisted he was there to play and win, and he did so right away.”
Regarding the game before Messi, the first half was quite entertaining considering it had two sides that were in last and last place, with many of opportunities for each to take advantage of.
Miami lined out in a 4-3-3 for the second game in a row under new coach Martino, the same configuration that Argentina employed to win the World Cup the previous year.
However, it was the visitors who got the game underway as Miami goalie Drake Callender had to make two saves in the first four minutes.
Miami did a good job of withstanding the initial pressure, but things took a turn for the worst when right back Ian Fray was taken out with a noncontact injury to his left knee. Fray has already suffered two ACL tears in the short time of his career, tearing his right ACL in 2021 and 2022.
Miami gained the lead for the first time in the 44th minute when Robert Taylor received a gorgeous cross from fellow winger Robbie Robinson, controlled it, cut inside from the left, and fired a powerful low shot from just inside the box that went off the far post and in.
A broad smile spread across Messi’s face as he jumped up from his seat, raised his hands in the air, and repeatedly clapped.
Kim Kardashian, music luminaries Gloria and Emilio Estefan, and fellow sporting greats LeBron James and Serena Williams attended the celebration that Cruz Azul’s leveller threatened to ruin.
In the 87th minute, Messi fed substitute Josef Martinez for an easy goal, but the play was called offside and Messi was not given credit for the assist.
The game was done shortly after the ball was lawfully put in the back of the net, and the start of this new chapter in Messi’s life’s tale was made.
The top three teams in this league will go to the Concacaf Champions League, but with this kind of start, Messi may already have his sights set on winning his new city’s first trophy.