Lionel Messi’s inevitable magic seals famous night for Inter Miami and MLS | Inter Miami

“As soon as I saw the free kick was given, I thought, ‘This is the way it’s meant to end,’” a teary-eyed Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham – who knows a thing or two about planting dead balls into top corners – said at full time.

It unfolded just as the owner foresaw, with the absurd inevitability of his new signing’s brilliance. In the 94th minute, the debutant Lionel Messi curled in a signature 25-yard strike to secure a 2-1 win over Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, a tournament between clubs from MLS and Liga MX.

Beckham was highly emotional in the stands at DRV PNK stadium, and the 21,000 fans who’d joyously gathered for a fútbol carnival were in rapture. “It was like a movie that will play on repeat forever,” added Inter’s new head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino.

Seconds later the game was over, crowning by far the greatest night in the short and, until this week, mostly unhappy history of Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami CF. The Messi effect was in full swing on night one, with LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian among the congregants bearing witness.

“It’s so exciting tonight for our fans. All these people who have come to see Leo step onto the pitch, let alone do what he’s just done,” Beckham added. “It’s a dream come true for everyone in this stadium and everybody around this country to see Leo step into the MLS and perform … It’s such a moment for this league and it’s such a moment for us.”

Locally, that moment had built all week, since Messi’s glitzy unveiling, and then for 54 minutes of a sideshow football match. For once, south Florida sports fans showed up early, keen to celebrate the magnitude of the event. They took perhaps the highest volume of smiley selfies ever recorded at a football stadium, waved pink flags bearing Messi’s image, and then they waited … very impatiently.

“Until I see him out on the pitch in that jersey it still doesn’t feel real. I have the shirt, I see the jerseys, but until I see him with the ball at his feet it won’t be real,” Daniel Granada, host of the Battered Herons podcast, said before the game.

Inside the temporary and recently expanded stadium in Fort Lauderdale, near constant chants of “Messi, Messi” echoed, as supporters eyed the home bench awaiting a sign of movement. There the new signing sat – mostly smiling – for the entire first half. When Inter defender Ian Fray suffered what appeared to be a serious injury, the fans chanted for their preferred replacement. Messi would later dedicate the win to his teammate.

The start of the second-half was ignored by fans as the famous substitute stretched and occasionally waved. Then it was time. Messi pulled on the same pink No 10 jersey sported by so many thousands in the stadium, his arrival coming much sooner than the pre-match hints of a mere cameo. He was joined by his former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets – another recent Inter Miami coup. For those wondering, the old telepathy remains. Inter will be worth watching for their link-up play alone, and Busquets remains imperious.

LeBron James and Serena Williams were among the thousands of spectators taking pictures of Messi from the stands during Friday’s match.
LeBron James and Serena Williams were among the thousands of spectators taking pictures of Messi from the stands during Friday’s match. Photograph: Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP/Getty Images

However, you wondered what Messi and Busquets made of the first half. Their team began in shambolic fashion; ragged at the back, slow of thought, and ponderous in possession. Perhaps the occasion got to them too? The Mexican side – yet to claim a point in Liga MX this season – forced multiple saves, hit the woodwork and skied an open goal rebound. With better finishing, the game would have been beyond even Messi’s intervention.

Inter did settle and went ahead just before the break. Robbie Robinson’s cross-field pass found winger Robert Taylor, who finished well with a right foot strike from the edge of the box. Cruz Azul eventually got a deserved equalizer on 65 minutes, setting up the frenetic finish. Opportunities came at both ends, as two teams sitting dead last in their respective leagues tired badly on a typically sticky south Florida summer night. However, it was Messi who dealt the telling blow, breaking an 11-game winless streak for his new team.

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“What I saw was the goal. I knew it was the last play of the game and I wanted to score,” the seven-time Ballon D’Or winner said at full-time. As if it were that simple.

Overall, the evening will be considered an incredible success for MLS and Inter Miami, now in its fourth season and, until now, without much to show for it. That’ll surely change now Messi has put the Barça band back together – Jordi Alba has also signed, Luis Suárez may follow – in a new setting.

The local community has embraced Messi Mania. Images of him pushing a cart full of groceries at the Publix supermarket (surrounded by seemingly oblivious shoppers) were received almost as joyously as his glitzy unveiling at the sold-out stadium.

Prior to the game, many fans sported Argentina flags adorned with the words “Gracias Leo”. Others brought replica World Cups and wore their national team’s shirt. For many who could afford the inflated ticket prices, it was their first MLS game. For Inter’s loyal fans, the occasion was validation. A culmination and an exciting new beginning. Brighter times are ahead.

Kris Duran of Battered Herons added before Friday’s kickoff: “If you thought his reveal was big, just wait until he gets subbed into this game. The response he’s going to get will be out of this world. We took the battering long enough to see the glitz and glamor that’s coming our way. We’re anticipating a trial-and-error season, but next year is when the expectations are going to get much higher.”

His podcasting partner Daniel Granada added: “We’re in the semi-finals of the US [Open] Cup which isn’t until 23 August. They have some time and games to gel. The main goal is to win that Open Cup and qualify for the [Concacaf] Champions Cup next year. Also in this Leagues Cup, hopefully we can make the top three and qualify automatically for the Champions Cup. We want Messi to be playing in international games. Hopefully we can make that happen.”

Just like the previous two decades of Messi’s career, Friday night proved once again there’s very little on a football field he cannot make happen.