Lionel Messi began his Inter Miami career with a bang as the Argentinian magician ended his debut with a stunning free-kick winner against Cruz Azul deep in stoppage time.
Seven months on from lifting the World Cup, the eyes of the footballing world were trained on Florida as the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner made his eagerly anticipated first appearance.
Messi’s Miami debut has been years in the making and proved well worth the wait.
After Robert Taylor’s excellent opener was cancelled out by Uriel Antuna, the 36-year-old struck at the death to send DRV PNK Stadium delirious and seal an unforgettable 2-1 Leagues Cup win.
It was the dream end to an evening that attracted fans of all ages in ‘Messi 10’ shirts, with stars like LeBron James, Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian and, of course, David Beckham among those in the sold-out, expectant crowd.
The proud Miami co-owner watched on from a box next to the dugout, where the early exchanges made for uncomfortable viewing as Miami looked every bit the Eastern Conference’s bottom side.
Inter rode out that early storm and took the lead just before the break as Taylor’s exquisite low strike went in off the post to Messi’s delight.
The forward was cheered throughout and received a rapturous reception when brought on in the 54th minute, taking the armband as Sergio Busquets also came on for his debut.
Jordi Alba has also signed up to join their former Barcelona boss Tata Martino in Miami, but there remains work to do and that was clear as Cruz Azul deservedly levelled through Antuna.
The Mexicans could easily have won it as the clock wound down, but this was Messi’s night.
The 36-year-old won a free-kick deep in stoppage time and there was an air of inevitability before he sent the resulting set piece into the top left-hand corner as fireworks filled the air.
This was a huge moment for Major League Soccer and momentous night for North American football, 48 years on from Pele’s New York Cosmos bow and 16 years to the day since Beckham made his LA Galaxy debut.
Messi’s name was chanted by excited fans through a match that the hosts began in ragged fashion as Cruz Azul toyed with the hosts. Carlos Rotondi sent an early effort off the post during that early barrage.
Miami offered precious little in return but – following a break to deal with Ian Fray’s nasty-looking injury – a moment of magic lit up the game.
Robbie Robinson’s diagonal pass found Taylor high and wide on the left, with the Finland international cutting inside, making space and slamming a low right-footed shot in off the far post.
Messi was on his feet celebrating and soon gearing to come on, with the big moment eventually arriving in the 54th minute.
Benjamin Cremaschi made way as the Argentina skipper jogged on to a huge roar and took the captain’s armband. Former Barca team-mate Busquets and Josef Martinez joined him as part of an exciting triple substitutions.
There was an electric atmosphere whenever Messi touched the ball but the Mexican visitors were still making opportunities and drew level in the 65th minute.
El primer gol de Messi con Inter Miami
Messi scores in his first match with the club to give us the lead in the 94th minute. pic.twitter.com/pI7bYjEK63
— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) July 22, 2023
Antuna collected the ball in a dangerous and Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender was unable to deal with his drilled strike.
Messi showed flashes of quality, skill and poise as play swung from end to end with both sides seeking a winner.
Ignacio Rivero was denied Callender and there were a few hairy moments as this helter-skelter clash continued, with Messi threaded through by Busquets only to see a shot blocked.
Martinez looked to have won it but Messi had strayed well offside before passing it and at the other end Christian Tabo was brilliantly stopped by Callender.
Play was set to end in a penalty shoot-out but Messi had other ideas.
Fouled by Carlos Salcedo, it set up the chance for an unforgettable finish and the debutant delivered a thrilling final blow.