July 21 (Portal) – Lionel Messi made a stirring debut for Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami when he scored an injury-time winner in Friday’s League Cup opener in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to defeat Liga MX’s Cruz Azul 2-1.
Messi committed a foul about 25 yards from goal in the final seconds and stepped in to deliver what everyone wanted to see as his free-kick sailed into the top left corner, sending the crowd delirious.
After the goal, Messi ran to the right corner of the pitch with his arms outstretched and then walked to the touchline on the other side, where he hugged his family.
“I knew I had to score, it was the last play of the game and I had to score so we didn’t have to go to penalties,” Messi said in the broadcast through a translator.
“This win was very important for us because it’s a new tournament and it will give us confidence for the future.”
With four-time NBA champion LeBron James, tennis legend Serena Williams and reality TV star Kim Kardashian among the crowd in the sell-out, Messi came on as a second-half substitute and received a rousing ovation as Miami led 1-0.
Messi was introduced as ‘the world No. 10’ when he came on in the 54th minute, slipping the captain’s armband down his left arm and sending the crowd into a frenzy every time he touched the ball.
It wasn’t long before the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner made his presence felt, escaping some Cruz Azul defenders and leading an attack down the right touchline, one of many chances he created that night.
‘A DREAM BECOMES TRUE’
At some point, Messi hit a Cruz Azul player in the penalty area and fell to the ground. While his team and fans demanded a penalty, the referee immediately waved his finger and denied the Argentinean a chance to take a penalty.
The 36-year-old then set up what appeared to be the decisive goal in the 89th minute, but Martinez, who hammered the ball into the net, was ruled offside.
But Messi, who only had seven months to lead Argentina to the World Cup in Qatar, was given a chance to shine again.
“As soon as I saw the free-kick, I thought this is how it’s supposed to end,” said David Beckham, co-owner of Inter Miami. “It’s so exciting for our fans tonight. All these people who came here to see Leo just step onto the field let alone just do what he did.”
“It is a dream come true for everyone at this stadium and for everyone across the country to see Leo enter and perform in MLS and words fail me.”
Messi’s Miami debut coincidentally happened 16 years to the day after Beckham’s first game for MLS club LA Galaxy.
The euphoria over Messi’s arrival in South Florida has peaked as restaurants are offering food and drinks named after him and murals depicting his likeness have sprung up across Miami.
It’s been a turbulent week for Messi, whose arrival in MLS gives a huge boost to the profile of football in the United States, which will join forces with Mexico and Canada to host the 2026 World Cup.
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 attended his first full training session with the club.
Inter Miami conclude the two-game group stage on Tuesday by hosting Atlanta United and hoping to advance to the knockout stages of the Leagues Cup, a World Cup-style tournament involving all teams from MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX.
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Edited by Stephen Coates
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