Messi delivered a stunning free kick in the 94th minute – a left-footed laser into the top left corner of the goal – to lift Miami to a 2-1 win over Liga MX’s Cruz Azul and send more than 19,000 into a roaring state of soccer ecstasy.
“What I saw was the goal,” Messi told Apple TV through an interpreter. “I knew I had to score on the play of the game and I had to score. I knew we weren’t going to go to penalties.
Cruz Azul goalkeeper Andrés Gudiño had a clear view and went full stretch. He had no chance.
The game, part of a competition called the Leagues Cup, had no bearing on the MLS standings. Yet somehow it meant everything to the crowd. Messi did not disappoint.
DC United fires coach for discriminatory hand gesture
In the parking lot, Julio Iglesias and his crew were wearing custom pink jerseys — Inter Miami’s colors — with an alligator holding a soccer ball and “Messiah 305” scrawled above the creature’s head. “This is the name of our new Messi fan club,” Iglesias said. “We formed it as soon as we found out that Messi was coming to play for Inter Miami.”
As of Friday night, Messiah 305 had more than two dozen members. Iglesias said he expected the number to continue to grow and after Messi’s debut, his club’s membership could skyrocket.
Messiah 305 and a capacity crowd – including LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian – got what they came for, although they had to wait until the second half for their hero to take the field in the 54th minute.
Most substitutions are announced in hushed tones, barely audible to fans. Not Friday. “Welcome the world number 10 please,” boomed the PA system, “And now, your No. 10. . .”
Moments later, Messi donned the captain’s armband.
Folarin Balogun chose the USMNT. But his club future is far from certain.
Shortly after stepping onto the pitch, his very first touch bounced Robert Taylor free. The run did not result in a goal, but the crowd lit up. Moments later it called out Messi’s name.
His impact on the game was immediate, pushing the Mexican team back and sending defenders swarming to him two or three at a time, leaving open forwards for the legend to pick out.
An Argentine who has lived in Miami since 2020, Iglesias had no interest in watching Inter Miami until the best player in football brought his talents to South Florida. “Now we will be here all the time,” Iglesias said. “Messi always comes to win. And we want to see him win.”
In recent weeks, Messi mania has taken over the region, particularly among around 150,000 Argentine expatriates such as Iglesias, who are still riding high from the superstar leading their national team to a World Cup victory in December.
“Messi has revolutionized the game,” Iglesias said. “The best player in the world is here. Of course he will attract people.”
At 36, Messi joined a team with the worst record in MLS, but his star power is already paying off for the franchise, which is partly owned by David Beckham, another international soccer hero who gave the American game a boost when he played for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Earlier this week, 20,000 turned up for Messi’s official team introduction despite enduring a summer storm. Inter Miami’s Instagram account has amassed more than 10 million new followers since Messi signed a 2½-year contract worth $150 million that includes an equity stake in the team.
With his former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba suiting up for Inter Miami and Argentine coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino taking the reins, the franchise has been revitalized.
Gabriel Fuentes, a season ticket holder since 2019, mingled with friends near food and drink stands outside the stadium on Friday. Draped in a flag stamped with pictures of Messi and two other Inter Miami players, Fuentes was ecstatic about the team’s chances of making the playoffs.
“I still think they’re lacking on defense,” said Fuentes, who emigrated to Miami from Argentina 20 years ago. – Now we can at least score a few more goals. We’re going to get five to seven goals a game.”
Messi’s star power made Friday’s game an expensive ticket. As of Friday morning, the ticket sites had center court seats for more than $1,000. The cheapest seats — in the back row of the sections behind the goal — went for $209.
Andres Loredo, an Inter Miami fan of Chilean descent who moved to Miami in 2003, wore black and pink soccer scarves he made. “Messi is goat” was embroidered on them.
He plans to attend several Inter Miami home games, depending on ticket prices. For Saturday’s game, Loredo paid $170. “The ones closest to the field were worse,” he said. “I saw some of those seats go for $1,700. Tickets are usually $40.”
Maria Laura Rodriguez, a party decorator of Argentine descent, traveled with her husband and their two children from Kendall, a neighborhood about 45 miles south of Fort Lauderdale. Rodriguez made a giant M and the number 10 out of black cardboard adorned with pink and black balloons.
Last week, she and her husband bought four tickets at $250 each for seats in a corner section behind one of the goal posts.
A resident of South Florida for 13 years, Rodriguez and her family weren’t big fans until Messi signed with the team. “We knew about them, but not with great furore,” Rodriguez said. “Now, sure. We’re going to come a lot.”