Lionel Messi scores winning goal in dream Inter Miami debut

July 21, 2023, 11:59 PM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- One of the most highly anticipated U.S. sporting debuts in recent memory lived up to expectations and more Friday.

Lionel Messi, the World Cup champion and seven-time Ballon d'Or winner, came off the bench to score one of his trademark free kicks in second-half stoppage time as Inter Miami defeated Cruz Azul 2-1 in a Leagues Cup opener for both teams.

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It was 9:26 p.m. ET when Messi stopped warming up in front of the packed south stands at DRV PNK Stadium, grabbed his pink jersey and jogged to the halfway line before replacing 18-year-old midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, himself of Argentine descent, in the 54th minute.

Up until that point, fans had only seen Messi on the bench, as the Miami substitutes strangely did their pregame and first-half warmups out of sight, presumably back by the locker room.

Messi's first historic touch came with 55:30 on the clock, but it was his touch past the 90-minute mark that was the only one that mattered.

When the visitors committed a foul 25 yards out with five seconds left in the two minutes extra, everyone knew what could potentially happen next.

And it did.

Messi curled the resulting free kick into the top corner with his legendary left foot, sending the sellout crowd of around 21,000 into a frenzy.

"It was a very good game for us. We were looking for a match like this one and to give a win to these fans," Messi told Apple TV.

"I want to thanks all these people. They are making me feel very welcomed here so I'm very happy to give this victory back to them."

For Miami, which has the worst record in MLS, the goal was the perfect start to the team's new era.

"I knew it was the last chance," Messi added of his free kick. "I just tried like I always do and fortunately the goalkeeper couldn't get the ball.

"It is important for this team to get wins because we are not in a good position in the league. I know this is another tournament but it will help our morale."

Even before the goal, every touch from Messi was met with intense anticipation, and when he turned on a dime in the 67th minute, leaving Cruz Azul defenders in the dust, the roar from the crowd would have drowned out any small jet departing from the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport next door.

Of course, the doubters will point out that Messi showed little interest in tracking back during the game and that Cruz Azul scored their tying goal through Mexico International Uriel Antuna when Messi was on the pitch, but none of that mattered.

"It's such a moment for this country," Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said. "It's such a moment for the league. And it's a very proud moment for us."

For those who suggested he was coming to South Beach for an end-of-career vacation, Messi provided an ideal response.

"We should be surprised by what Messi did because it is a constant achievement," said Gerardo "Tata" Martino, Miami's head coach and Messi's former one at both Barcelona and Argentina.

"For him [to sign with Miami] is a life and family choice, but he said he came to play and win and he showed that from his first game."

As for the game pre-Messi, the first half was highly entertaining considering it featured two last-placed teams, with plenty of open space for both to exploit.

For the second straight outing under new coach Martino, Miami set up in a 4-3-3, the same formation used by Argentina to win the World Cup last year.

It was the visitors who started the game firmly on the front foot though, as Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender was called into action twice in the opening four minutes.

Miami did a satisfactory job of soaking up the early pressure, but things went sour when right back Ian Fray went down with a noncontact injury to his left knee. Fray has already had two ACL injuries in his young career, as he tore his right ACL in 2021 and 2022.

In the 44th minute, Miami took the lead for the first time when Robert Taylor controlled a sublime cross-field pass from fellow winger Robbie Robinson, cut inside from the left and unleashed a tremendous low shot from just inside the box that went off the far post and in.

Messi leaped from his seat, threw his hands in the air, applauded several times and broke into a wide smile.

Cruz Azul's leveler threatened to spoil a party that had attracted fellow sporting greats  LeBron James and Serena Williams, music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan as well as Kim Kardashian.

Messi thought he'd provided the assist on the potential winning goal in the 87th minute when he fed substitute Josef Martinez for an easy finish, but Messi was ruled offside in the buildup.

Minutes later, the ball was in the back of the net legally, the game was over soon after that and the beginning of this next chapter in Messi's story was written.

Miami's final group game in the Leagues Cup will be on Tuesday against Atlanta United in Fort Lauderdale, with Cruz Azul visiting Atlanta five days later. The knockout stage -- which Miami has one foot in after this victory -- will start Aug. 2.

The top three teams in this competition will qualify for the Concacaf Champions League but after a beginning like this, Messi might already have his sights on a first piece of silverware in his new home.