If this is Lionel Messi’s farewell tour, it looks like it’s going to be a compelling one.
The Argentinian’s Inter Miami career didn’t start very well: he came off the bench against Mexico’s Cruz Azul in a Leagues Cup match on Friday night, and his new team soon conceded a goal. No matter: deep in injury time, Inter Miami were awarded a free-kick 25 yards out. He duly fired a perfect strike into the top corner, winning the game, and was mobbed by jubilant teammates. Not long afterwards, the referee blew the whistle and the 2-1 victory was complete.
Messi checked in early in the second half with Inter Miami leading 1-0. He hugged the player he was replacing, midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, then trotted onto the field as the estimated crowd of 21,000 cheered, almost all of them with phones out to chronicle the moment.
It took Inter Miami four years of planning and two years of actual pursuing to bring Messi to the club.
“Worth it,” the club’s co-owner, David Beckham, said earlier in the week.
How right he was.
Nobody left their seats when the half-time whistle blew. The reason: Messi was on the field warming up before joining his teammates in the tunnel.
That’s when the fans, finally, could put their phones down and take a breath. Temporarily, anyway. The wait was officially on: When was Messi coming in? He resumed warmups while the second half was getting under way, jogging around behind the end line near Miami’s supporter section, and fans roared in delight when he gave them a wave.
And about eight minutes into the second half, the answer: It was Messi time.
The first Inter Miami goal of the Messi era was scored by Robert Taylor, who sent a low drive off the inside of the far post for a 1-0 lead late in the first half. Messi leaped from his seat, threw his hands in the air, applauded several times and broke into a wide smile.
Cruz Azul tied the game shortly after Messi checked in and had plenty of chances to take a late lead. But the final act belonged to Messi, a storybook ending if there ever was one.
Team officials said all tickets – about 21,000, in a newly expanded stadium – were sold. Messi arrived with the team about two hours before game time, dressed in the team colors – pink T-shirt, black shorts. He stopped for a few photos and handshakes as he entered the tunnel leading to the locker room.
He got a hug and shared a few words with LeBron James – who also knows a thing or two about making a highly celebrated move to Miami, after he joined the Heat in 2010 and won his first two NBA titles in a four-year stay – on his way to the bench. Messi took his seat and watched his new team, in the all-pink jersey, shorts and socks, start his new era.
Messi signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Inter Miami that will pay him between $50m and $60m annually – and almost certainly more than $1m a match. He already looks like value for money.