July 21 (Reuters) – Lionel Messi made an impressive debut for Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami as they beat Liga MX’s Cruz Azul 2-1 in their League Cup opener in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Friday.
Messi made a foul 25 yards from goal in the dying seconds and stepped up to deliver what everyone came to see as his free kick flew into the top left corner and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
After the goal, Messi ran towards the right corner of the field with his arms outstretched, then went to the sideline where he hugged his family.
“I knew I had to score, it was the last play of the game, I had to score so we didn’t go to penalties,” Messi said on the broadcast through a translator.
“Getting this win is very important for us because it is a new competition and it will give us confidence going forward.”
In a sold-out crowd that included four-time NBA champion LeBron James, tennis great Serena Williams and reality television star Kim Kardashian, Messi entered the game as a second-half substitute to a rousing ovation in Miami’s 1-0 loss.
Messi, who came on in the 54th minute and was introduced as “World No. 10”, sent the crowd into a frenzy by slipping the captain’s armband on his left arm whenever he touched the ball.
It didn’t take long for the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner to make his presence felt, one of the many chances he created on the night as he evaded some Cruz Azul defenders and attacked down the right.
‘Dream Come True’
At one point, Messi ran into a Cruz Azul player in the box and fell to the ground, and the referee immediately waved his finger as his team and supporters wanted a penalty, denying Argentina a spot kick.
The 36-year-old appeared to have scored the winning goal in the 89th minute, but Martinez was adjudged offside as he knocked the ball into the net.
But Messi, seven months removed from leading Argentina to World Cup glory in Qatar, got his chance to shine again.
“As soon as I saw the free kick I gave away, I thought this is the end,” Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said. “It’s really exciting for our fans tonight. Let’s not let all these people who are here to see Leo step on the pitch do what he did.
“For everyone in this stadium and for everyone around this country to see Leo enter and perform in the MLS is a dream come true and I don’t have enough words for that.”
Coincidentally, Messi’s Miami debut came 16 years after Beckham made his debut for MLS side LA Galaxy.
Excitement over Messi’s arrival in South Florida has reached a fever pitch, as restaurants offer food and drink options named after him, while murals depicting his likeness have popped up across Miami.
It’s been a whirlwind week for Messi, who will co-host the 2026 World Cup with Mexico and Canada, with his arrival in MLS providing a major boost to soccer’s profile in the United States.
Messi’s 2-1/2-year contract with Miami was officially announced last Saturday. A day later he was introduced to the club’s supporters at a glittering welcome party and on Tuesday he took part in his first full training session with the club.
Inter Miami wraps up a two-game group stage on Tuesday when they host Atlanta United in hopes of advancing to the knockout rounds of the League Cup, a World Cup-style competition featuring all teams from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX.
Reported by Frank Bingu in Toronto; Editing by Stephen Coates
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