By TIM REYNOLDS (AP Sports Writer)
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Some people paid hundreds of dollars to be able to say they were in the stadium for Lionel Messi’s debut for Inter Miami. Some paid thousands for their seats. The team’s owners committed well over $100 million just to have a chance at moments like this.
So far, it looks like money well spent.
From the you-can’t-make-this-up department, Messi capped the opening night with his new club by delivering the unforgettable. His magical left foot sent a free kick into the upper left corner of the net in the 94th minute Friday night, giving Inter Miami a 2-1 win over Mexican club Cruz Azul in a Leagues Cup match.
“What I saw was the goal,” Messi said in an on-field interview amid the postgame celebration. “I saw the goal. I knew that I had to score.”
He makes it sound so easy. Made it look so easy, too.
The game’s greatest active player — a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and a World Cup champion — sent the ball over a wall of four Cruz Azul defenders for the winning goal, unquestionably the greatest moment in Inter Miami’s brief history. Fireworks shot into the night sky, and play resumed for roughly a minute before the referee’s whistle blew.
“It’s a movie that we have seen before,” Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said.
Messi was a showman throughout his debut for his Major League Soccer club. He waved at fans while he was seated on the bench. Waved at them while he was warming up. Waved at them while he was actually in the game.
And if that wasn’t enough, he saved his best moment for the end. He watched the ball sail into the net, something he’s done about 800 times before for club and country, then sprinted to the right corner of the field and leaped into the arms of teammates.
The team’s owners — David Beckham, Jorge Mas and Jose Mas — were waiting as he left the pitch; Jorge Mas planted a kiss onto the superstar’s sweat-coated cheek. Some Cruz Azul players stood in silence and just watched; they’ll have a story to tell, too, about how it took an incredible Messi moment to defeat them.
It took Inter Miami four years of planning and two years of actual pursuing to bring Messi to the club.
“Worth it,” Beckham said earlier in the week.
How right he was.
“It’s such a moment for this country,” Beckham said. “It’s such a moment for the league. And it’s a very proud moment for us.”
Nobody even left their seats when the halftime whistle blew. The reason: Messi was on the field. He warmed up for about 5 minutes during intermission with the other reserves before they all left for the locker room.
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.
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 all seemed to be standing, almost all of them with phones out to chronicle the moment.
Had he missed the free kick, the game would have gone to a penalty shootout. Instead, Messi ended it on his terms.
“It was the last play of the game and I wanted to score so I didn’t go to penalties,” Messi said.
The first Inter Miami goal of the Messi era was scored by Robert Taylor, who took a long cross from Robbie Robinson, moved into the box and sent a low drive off the inside of the far post and into the back of the net 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.
“It’s common for him, you know,” Martino said. “It looks absolutely normal, but it’s not … we’re speaking about the GOAT.”
It was a gathering of GOATs at Messi’s debut match: LeBron James and Serena Williams were there — like Messi in soccer, they’re in the conversation of “greatest of all time” when it comes to the NBA and tennis. Music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan showed up, as did Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and Kim Kardashian arrived saying one of her sons had a particular reason why he had to attend.
“He’s so excited to see Messi,” Kardashian said.
Everyone was. James — who 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 — greeted Messi with a long embrace as the teams took the field. And after the goal, James acknowledged the greatness.
“INCREDIBLE,” James tweeted, with a goat emoji for emphasis.
No matter what, it was a massive night for soccer in the U.S. — Messi making his first Miami appearance while, on the other side of the globe, the U.S. women’s team opened its World Cup title defense in New Zealand by beating Vietnam 3-0.
Messi signed a 2 1/2-year contract that will pay him between $50 million and $60 million annually — and almost certainly more than $1 million per match.
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.
As the match started, Messi took his seat and watched his new team, in the all-pink jersey, shorts and socks, start his new era. Almost every seat was filled, many by people wearing newly acquired Miami jerseys with Messi’s name on the back. They chanted his name a few times, waved flags bearing his name and number.
The excitement kept building, all the way to the end. And Messi made sure his new fans went home happy.
“It was very important,” Messi said, “for us to get this win.”
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