Lionel Messi made a Hollywood start to his American adventure, scoring a last-second winner with a curling free-kick in his debut game for Inter Miami on Friday.
Deep in the fourth minute of stoppage time, with the Leagues Cup match against Mexican club Cruz Azul standing at 1-1, Messi won a free-kick just outside the box, in perfect range for his famous left foot.
The script had been written and Messi delivered his line perfectly.
The seven-times Ballon d’Or winner took a glance at the position of Cruz Azul goalkeeper Andres Gudino, then put his head down before curling his shot high to the keeper’s right and into the top corner to deliver the 2-1 triumph.
The capacity 20,000 crowd at Miami’s DRV PNK Stadium went wild, with some fans running on to the field before being apprehended by security. Smoke bombs in Miami’s trademark pink went off in the area behind the goal, occupied by the team’s most passionate supporters.
“We wanted to start like this by giving these people a victory,” said Messi.
“We knew that it was very important for us to start this championship in winning fashion and luckily we were able to do it in the end, and I am very happy,” he added.
Miami are rock bottom of Major League Soccer and without a win in 11 games in league play, so Messi said the victory was sorely needed.
“It is a huge joy to get this first victory after how we have done in the league,” he said. “It is important to start winning, beyond the fact that it is another championship, for confidence it is very good to get victories.”
Miami and Major League Soccer hope that the arrival of the Argentine World Cup winner and all-time great will transform the sport and push it into the American mainstream.
If Messi’s debut was any guide, the former Barcelona star still has plenty to offer.
Even before his wonderful goal he had looked sharp and alert, his touch belying the fact that until little over a week ago he was vacationing on a Caribbean beach with his family.
Sergio Busquets, the Spanish midfielder and former Barca team-mate, who has joined Messi for his American adventure, also made a strong impression after they both entered the contest in the 54th minute as part of a triple change with Venezuelan Josef Martinez.
Busquets showed his famous, almost telepathic understanding with Messi remains, after over two years apart from each other, with the midfielder delivering pieces from all angles into the Argentine’s feet.
But it was Messi’s magical finish that will remain long in the memories of Inter Miami fans.
He also made sure that the club’s co-owner David Beckham had a broad grin at the final whistle.
“To be honest, as soon as I saw the free kick given I thought this is the way it’s meant to end. Especially when you’ve got players like Leo and Sergio on the pitch, that’s what they produce,” said the former England midfielder.
“It’s so exciting tonight for our fans. All of these people that come down here to see Leo just step onto the pitch, let alone just do what he’s done. It’s a dream come true for everyone in this stadium to see.
“It’s such a moment for this country, such a moment for this league,” he said.
– Stars turn out –
Messi became the biggest name signing in MLS’s history when he joined Miami after his contract with Paris Saint-Germain came to an end in June.
NBA great LeBron James, reality television star Kim Kardashian and tennis legend Serena Williams were among the stars who turned out.
Many fans were decked out in replica pink Miami shirts with Messi’s name and number 10 on the back. Others sported Messi masks and banners, one wore a goat mask in a nod to Messi’s Greatest Of All Time status.
There was some disappointment when the teams were announced with Messi on the bench and it was clear that plans had been made to celebrate his first start as fireworks exploded above the grandstands when the referee blew the whistle to start the encounter.
Against the run of play, after Cruz Azul wasted a series of chances, Miami took the lead in the 44th minute with a fine, low shot from Robert Taylor which flew off the post.
Messi and Busquets came in with that lead intact but saw the Mexicans draw level through a powerful drive from Uriel Antuna in the 65th minute.
Then came Messi’s moment, the perfect introduction to his new fans and his new country.