Kingston Peel, 11, and his 9-year-old brother, Wynn, got woken up early Friday at their home in the Bahamas. Their mother had a surprise for them.
In only a few hours, they’d fly to South Florida to see superstar Lionel Messi make his Major League Soccer debut with Inter Miami.
“We’re here to see Messi,” Kingston and Wynn said in unison. They arrived at DRV PNK Stadium hours before Inter Miami’s match against Mexican club Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup.
And on Friday night, Messi gave an unforgettable thrill to fans young and old who witnessed his first game, converting a free kick from about 25 yards in the 94th minute to give his new team a 2-1 victory.
Troves of fans, some from as far away as Ecuador and Messi’s native Argentina, bounced around the outskirts of the stadium ahead of Messi’s debut. Some, like Kingston and Wynn, wore black-and-pink Inter Miami jerseys with Messi’s No. 10 on the back. Others wore the 36-year-old’s Argentina jersey. Dozens stood in line for team gear. Even more waited to have their Messi flags and jerseys captured in a photo booth.
Kim Kardashian arrived at the stadium about an hour before the start of the match, with one of her children wearing Messi’s Inter Miami jersey. Serena Williams and LeBron James were there, too, and James greeted Messi before the game.
“It’s insane,” said season ticket holder Christian Zinn, who lives in nearby Parkland and attended the match with his son, Oliver. “We normally come a half hour before the game, and it’s like this. Not two hours before the game. We knew it was going to be crazy.”
Messi and fellow newcomer Sergio Busquets checked into the game in the 54th minute, with phones out all around the stadium to capture the moment. Inter Miami led 1-0 at the time, but Cruz Azul tied it shortly after he checked in, setting up the incredible finish.
After months of speculation, Messi signed a 2 1/2-year contract with the team this past weekend. Tens of thousand of people showed up to see the team introduce Messi Sunday night. Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said online video of the event was viewed 3.5 billion times.
“That’s a gift that Leo has given the sport,” Beckham said. “He’s at the stage of his career where he’s done everything that any soccer player can do in a sport. He’s one of the greatest players if not the greatest player to ever play that game.”
Beckham, an English great who also came to MLS in 2007 after a long career in Europe, said Messi’s move has “raised the bar” for soccer in the United States.
“When I went on the journey in 2007, and when I started my Miami journey ten years ago, my vision was exactly what we saw the moment that Leo announced,” Beckham said. “That’s what I wanted to see for the sport.”
Miami native Carlos Fierro, who said he’s been a Messi fan his whole life, said Messi’s arrival had a similar impact to James’ signing with the Miami Heat in 2010.
“It’s going to be very different because Messi’s that type of player. He’s going to bring the party,” Fierro said. “We saw it in the presentation how loud it got. I’m expecting everything to be loud and fun. Just typical Miami style.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition