Dreams become reality, eventually.
And Friday at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was one of those moments that will forever live in the memory of soccer fans.
Lionel Messi made his anticipated Inter Miami CF debut and delivered the winning goal in stoppage time. His left boot, outside of the box, a magical free kick and nothing Cruz Azul goalkeeper Andrés Gudiño could do but become an unfortunate part of a highlight reel.
This night, that moment, is what Miami has been waiting for since entering Major League Soccer. Linked with some of the biggest stars throughout the years, not many of those came to fruition. But Messi and friends are now in South Florida, and the era is officially underway with an epic 2-1 win over Liga MX club Cruz Azul to kick off Leagues Cup.
"I knew it was the last play, and I hoped to score to avoid going to penalties and secure the three points, as it was a crucial match for us to start the new tournament with a victory," Messi told Apple TV after the match. "It's essential to begin this way for the group's confidence, which has been working very well since I joined."
All throughout the week of anticipation for his debut, the conversation was around how many minutes he would play. That, of course, was always going to be dictated by game flow, but head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino shocked most when he made the substitution in the 54th minute, bringing in Messi, Busquets and Josef Martinez.
The roar at a sold-out DRV PNK Stadium was epic. Messi’s first touch of the ball was a silky sequence that we’ve all seen many times — a run, a give-and-go and Messi just weaving his way up the field. He got to the end line and eventually lost the ball, but it was a moment.
Everything surrounding Messi always is.
His shirt was in abundance throughout the stands, and not just pink and black Miami shirts, but the iconic blue Albiceleste Argentina shirts, too. Pink flags with his silhouette and name waved throughout the night.
But this game, despite the outcome, was truly only about one thing.
Inter Miami was a mess in the first half, as they have been for most of the season. There were turnovers, too many gaps in the midfield and lousy defending. Yet, right before halftime, Robert Taylor hit a ball from just inside the box and put the hosts up, 1-0.
Messi approved, smiling along from the bench. It wasn’t hard to see what his emotions were as the cameras panned to him every few minutes.
But he changed the game as soon as he stepped on the field and put the captain armband on in the second half.
The 🐐 has officially checked in.pic.twitter.com/qRY4xYPNuq
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) July 22, 2023
Cleaner touches, more open space and attacking threat. Busquets, obviously, had a lot to do with it as he delegated in the midfield as he’s so eloquently done for years. But if we’re talking reality, that struck in the 65th minute when Miami defender Kamal Miller left a little too much space in the box for Uriel Antuna in the box, as the Cruz Azul forward turned and scored the equalizer.
With stars like LeBron James and Serena Williams in the building, greatness was always going to prevail. And if you look up the definition of greatness, a picture of Lionel Messi might pop up.
“To be honest, as soon as I saw the free kick given I thought this was the way it was meant to win. Especially when you have players like Leo and Sergio on the pitch,” said Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham after the game. “This is such a special night. It is such a moment for this country and this league.”
That’s why he’s considered the greatest player ever.
Friday he reminded the world, once again, that he is indeed that guy.
Debate whatever and whomever you want, he’s just going to keep doing these things.
And now Inter Miami, among others, gets to reap the benefits.
Welcome to Messi League Soccer. Enjoy the ride.