Lionel Messi’s U.S. Debut Went Exactly as You Would Expect

 The much-anticipated Major League Soccer debut of soccer superstar Lionel Messi with his new team, Inter Miami, on Friday night did not disappoint. 

After checking in as a substitute early in the second half, Messi scored on a sensational free kick in stoppage time to give Inter Miami the win over Mexican club Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, and sending the sold-out crowd at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale into a frenzy. 

Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi of Inter Miami CF celebrates after scoring a goal the Leagues Cup match against Mexican club Cruz Azul at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on July 21, 2023.ARTURO JIMENEZ/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES

Messi's U.S. arrival is generating a frenzy of excitement in South Florida, with soccer fans extending him a warm welcome. The Miami Herald even dedicated a full-page message saying "Bienvenido Messi" last Sunday. 

Messi, who is Argentinian and regarded as one of the greatest players in soccer history, recently won his first World Cup trophy for his home country. He now brings his global celebrity to the U.S., after announcing last month he has decided to play in the MLS.

Messi's arrival, coupled with the Women's World Cup as the women's national team efforts a three-peat, will contribute to the growth of soccer in America, said Roger Bennett, co-founder of Men in Blazers, a soccer-focused media company.

"America will be a normal football nation in which the game is loved and it thrives, and maybe one day will produce a Lionel Messi of our own, which is when we know we've really made it," said Bennett.  

Bennett compared Messi's arrival in the U.S. to LeBron James deciding "he's gonna pack up and go and play for the Shanghai Sharks in China." 

His decision to play for Inter Miami not only marks a milestone moment for the MLS but also represents a significant partnership with the league's new streaming partner, Apple TV. The team secured the lucrative deal with some creative arrangements, including a cut of the broadcasting uptick for Apple TV subscriptions worldwide and negotiations with Adidas to share a portion of their profits. 

Inter Miami's owner, Jorge Mas, revealed that the deal to bring Messi to the team could be worth an astonishing $50-60 million a year.  

"I've gotta give huge respect to Major League Soccer," Bennett said. "This is an incredibly creative, groundbreaking, deeply inventive deal."

The Messi family's familiarity with Miami played a significant role in the decision, as they already had an apartment in the city, making it feel like home, according to Bennett.  

In addition to his impact on the field, Messi's presence is creating a buzz among fans and potential investors alike. Ticket prices for his first match with Inter Miami soared, reaching more than $100,000 for some seats, and demand for Inter Miami matches throughout the league has skyrocketed. 

David Beckham, co-owner of Inter Miami and a former MLS star, hopes Messi's arrival will inspire a new generation of soccer enthusiasts in the United States.  

With one of the largest Argentine populations in the country, Miami is already embracing Messi with adoring crowds swarming him outside restaurants. Images of him shopping at a local Publix grocery store have gone viral. 

At his first practice, fans flocked to catch a glimpse of their hero — especially the younger generation. 

"We're here to see Messi. Because we think he's awesome," said one young fan at his first practice. 

In the wake of Messi's arrival, Inter Miami's Instagram followers have skyrocketed from one million to an impressive 10 million, surpassing all U.S. sports teams outside the NBA, reflecting the widespread enthusiasm surrounding the soccer superstar's debut.

Some people paid hundreds of dollars to be able to say they were in the stadium for Lionel Messi’s debut for Inter Miami. Some paid thousands for their seats. The team’s owners committed well over $100 million just to have a chance at moments like this.

So far, it looks like money well spent.

From the you-can’t-make-this-up department, Messi capped the opening night with his new club by delivering the unforgettable. His magical left foot sent a free kick into the upper left corner of the net in the 94th minute Friday night, giving Inter Miami a 2-1 win over Mexican club Cruz Azul in a Leagues Cup match.


“What I saw was the goal,” Messi said in an on-field interview amid the postgame celebration. “I saw the goal. I knew that I had to score.”

He makes it sound so easy. Made it look so easy, too.

The game’s greatest active player — a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and a World Cup champion — sent the ball over a wall of four Cruz Azul defenders for the winning goal, unquestionably the greatest moment in Inter Miami’s brief history. Fireworks shot into the night sky, and play resumed for roughly a minute before the referee’s whistle blew.

“It’s a movie that we have seen before,” Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said.

Messi was a showman throughout his debut for his Major League Soccer club. 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.

The team’s owners — David Beckham, Jorge Mas, and Jose Mas — were waiting as he left the pitch; Jorge Mas planted a kiss on the superstar’s sweat-coated cheek. Some Cruz Azul players stood in silence and just watched; they’ll have a story to tell, too, about how it took an incredible Messi moment to defeat them.

It took Inter Miami four years of planning and two years of actual pursuing to bring Messi to the club.

“Worth it,” Beckham said earlier in the week.

How right he was.

“It’s such a moment for this country,” Beckham said. “It’s such a moment for the league. And it’s a very proud moment for us.”

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 underway, 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.

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.

Had he missed the free kick, the game would have gone to a penalty shootout. Instead, Messi ended it on his terms.

“It was the last play of the game and I wanted to score so I didn’t go to penalties,” Messi said.

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.

“It’s common for him, you know,” Martino said. “It looks absolutely normal, but it’s not ... we’re speaking about the GOAT.”

It was a gathering of GOATs at Messi’s debut match: LeBron 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.

Everyone was. James — 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 — greeted Messi with a long embrace as the teams took the field. And after the goal, James acknowledged the greatness.

“INCREDIBLE,” James tweeted, with a goat emoji for emphasis.

No matter what, it was a massive night for soccer in the U.S. — Messi making his first Miami appearance while, on the other side of the globe, the U.S. women’s team opened its World Cup title defense in New Zealand by beating Vietnam 3-0.

Messi signed a 2 1/2-year contract that will pay him between $50 million and $60 million annually — and almost certainly more than $1 million per match.

Messi arrived with the team about two hours before game time, dressed in the team colors — a pink T-shirt, and black shorts. He stopped for a few photos and handshakes as he entered the tunnel leading to the locker room.

As the match started, 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 and waved flags bearing his name and number.

The excitement kept building, all the way to the end. And Messi made sure his new fans went home happy.

“It was very important,” Messi said, “for us to get this win.”

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