In a Hollywood finale, the consummation of the romance between the city of Miami and the new star of its soccer team – Lionel Messi – came after six weeks of flirting and promises of eternal love. It appeared in the form of a last-minute free-kick during Friday night’s game between Inter Miami and Mexico City’s Cruz Azul. Messi’s genius alone – highlighted by a salvo of pink fireworks – was enough to give his team the win (2-1) and for the Argentine star to make it clear that he will achieve what they have brought him to do in this once-forgotten corner of soccer.
It was minute 94 of a tough game. The score read 1-1. Some of the 22,000 fans – who hadn’t wanted to miss the debut of a new era for their team – decided that it was a good idea to run out of the stadium to avoid the traffic. Perhaps they didn’t know that, according to League Cup rules, penalties must be taken in the event of a tie. But, in the end, this wasn’t necessary.
Messi fell to the ground, victim of a foul by one of the Mexican players. He picked up the ball, caressed it and flashed one of his iconic half smiles. Suddenly, it was clear what was about to happen: ecstasy seized the stands of the DNV PNK stadium in Fort Lauderdale, about 25 miles north of Miami. At that moment, someone tried to rush the field. Everyone – from the fans at home, to the managers and players on the field, to the 200 journalists from around the world accredited to report on the match, along with Messi himself – breathed a sigh of relief when he was stopped.
El primer gol de Messi con Inter Miami 🤯🤯👏👏— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) July 22, 2023
Messi scores in his first match with the club to give us the lead in the 94th minute. pic.twitter.com/pI7bYjEK63
The new #10 from Inter Miami CF – who has been praised for even the style in which he sits on the bench – came onto the field eight minutes into the second half of the match. He did it accompanied by the other great recruit of the season: Sergio Busquets. During the week, the club had already made it clear that the two men weren’t going to start. The bodies of these two legendary players are in decline, while they have just completed a demanding season in Europe.
In the end, however, coach Gerardo Tata Martino – another newcomer to Miami – put them on the line sooner than expected. The first pass between the two was enough to send a rush of electricity through the stadium. What had been taking place during the previous 53 minutes of play had been similar to soccer, certainly… but this was something else.
The game began with the clear dominance of Cruz Azul, whose players wasted one opportunity after another to rack up goals. Meanwhile, the local fans dedicated themselves to the sport of spotting celebrities (from Lebron James, to Serena Williams, to singer Becky G, who gave a fantastic rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner). Everyone seemed to have mutated into a species that speaks a language that consists of a single word: “Messi! Messi!”
Few will remember him when this match is discussed in the future, but there was only one hero for Miami during the first half: goalkeeper Drake Callender. He prevented tragedy time after time. And the Finnish player – Robert Taylor – scored the only goal for Inter Miami in the first half. He did it from the left, with a right hand that touched the post. It almost didn’t count.
With Messi, Busquets and Josef Martínez – Inter Miami’s third “designated player,” a category that, according to MLS rules, is exempt from the salary cap applied to most athletes – the team’s prospects greatly improved. From time to time, with amazing ease, the Argentine broke through the Cruz Azul lines, making a couple of plays that were thwarted by being declared offside. Busquets had a harder time finding his stride in the game. And, because of this faltering, the Mexicans achieved what they had been deserving for quite some time: in the 64th minute, striker Uriel Antuna received a pass that he kicked with all his might, smashing it against Callender’s hand before it went into the net.
As the fans predicted the worst, Inter Miami’s decisive second arrived. There’s now a widespread feeling that the honeymoon period between Miami and Messi has started off on the right foot. The club will now rake in profits from sports merchandise, which, nowadays, is a sound business in South Florida. T-shirts – both official and pirated – have become ubiquitous, making Miami the only place in the United States where pink means something other than the premiere of Barbie.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition