Lionel Messi has kicked off his Major League Soccer career with a banger…
The 36-year-old Argentine professional footballer, a 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.
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 warm-ups 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.”