FORT LAUDERDALE — There was a moment, after Lionel Messi had done what he had done, that Messi himself looked like even he wasn’t buying it.
Messi was making his debut with Inter Miami on Friday night. DRV PNK Stadium was packed with 22,000 fans, some paying four figures for the honor of stepping through the gates.
They just wanted to see Messi.
What they saw was storybook Messi, scripting a finish they won’t forget.
Stoppage time. Inter Miami tied 1-1 with Mexico’s Cruz Azul. One last shot. A free kick from about 25 yards after Messi had been fouled. No question who was going to take it.
Messi took two steps forward, swung his left leg … and nailed the upper left corner of the net. There wasn’t a thing the five-man wall or the goalkeeper could do about it.
Fireworks went off.
Pink smoke bombs went off.
Messi seemed to take off, spreading his arms like wings, running to the corner flag and waiting for teammates to mob him.
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“What I saw was the goal,” Messi said, referring to his target, through a translator. “I saw the goal, I knew it was the last play of the game and I had to score.”
Next, the whistle sounded, Inter Miami a 2-1 winner in the opening of the new Leagues Cup tournament. Standing in the midfield circle, Messi slowly spun around, surveying the stands and the bedlam he’d created. He appeared to be both admiring the exclamation point he’d put on his debut as well as trying to convince himself it was real.
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“It’s such a moment for this country,” said Inter Miami part-owner David Beckham, who perhaps could be forgiven for the hyperbole. “It’s such a moment for this league. And it’s a very proud moment for us.”
Beckham is a guy who’d scored a few dramatic free-kick goals in his time. Friday night, he probably witnessed a rewrite of the phrase he made famous. It’s now Spend it Like Beckham. That reported $150 million the club handed Messi is looking as worth it as the $2,000 some are said to have paid for tickets on the secondary market for this match.
Beckham was impressed, all right. But surprised? Nah.
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“To be honest, as soon as I saw the free kick given, I thought this is the way it’s meant to end,” Beckham said.
An ending, a beginning. For this last-place, downtrodden franchise, maybe it’s both. Messi didn’t even start the match. Word was that because he was just coming off vacation, he might play 20-25 minutes. But Messi never was one to play spectator when there are 90 minutes at his disposal. The last time he came off the bench was in September, for Argentina, against Jamaica. He played 35 minutes that day, apparently taking out his frustration by scoring twice.
So Friday, Messi and coach Tata Martino appeared to compromise. Messi entered in the 55th minute along with midfielder Sergio Busquets.
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From his first minute with his new team, Messi wore the captain’s armband. It was his show. He and Busquets spent years together at Barcelona and that mutual understanding was like a jolt of Cuban coffee for Inter Miami’s nonexistent attack.
Messi showed zero rust, displaying the same velcro touch with the ball we’ve grown accustomed to, the same vision, the same knack for turning defenders into sympathetic pawns. One attack ended with the ball in the net, but Messi was ruled offside, which only thickened the plot.
This night called for last-second heroics.
“He was able to write history,” Martino said. “It’s a situation that we have seen before.”
This was a night for stars to shine and stars to come out. Not quite to the tune of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, but close. LeBron James was there. Got a hug from Messi before the match, too. So too Serena Williams, making for an impressive collection of GOAT claimants. Kim Kardashian and Tua Tagovailoa also came.
Behind the stands, a line about 20 deep slowly shuffled toward the trailer selling jerseys. Of course, Messi’s No. 10 jersey was the target, and never mind the price tags of $124 to $194. You never would have thought Inter Miami had been on an 11-match winless streak.
Despite being outplayed in the first half, Inter Miami took the lead in the 44th minute on a Robert Taylor strike that made Messi grin while chomping on his gum on the bench (although Cruz Azul would equalize in the 65th minute). At halftime, Messi took his first touches of the ball before the crowd. He was warming up with the rest of subs, which didn’t do the club’s concessions any favors. Not a soul seemed to be heading downstairs for a beverage. That’s the kind of draw Messi is.
“It’s so exciting tonight for our fans,” Beckham said. “For all these people who’ve come to see Leo just step onto the pitch and do what he’s done.”
To do something that seemed to impress even the legendary Messi himself.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Lionel Messi's Inter Miami debut was one for the history books