Lionel Messi smiles after scoring the winning goal in his debut for Inter Miami against Cruz Azul on Friday (Chandan KHANNA)
Lionel Messi provided the perfect finish to start his career with Inter Miami with a brilliant winning goal on Friday but what may be most significant from his debut was how totally happy he looks again.
So much of the focus since Messi said he was moving to Miami from Paris Saint-Germain has been on what the move will mean for Major League Soccer and for the business of soccer in the USA.
Somewhat lost in the hype around the move has been what it all means for the 36-year-old Argentine star himself.
Messi went from the ultimate high of winning the World Cup in December to looking miserable in Paris, where he was booed by PSG’s fans in his final game.
Since arriving in South Florida though, Messi has had a smile on his face again and his comments, always in Spanish, have been peppered with the word “contento”.
He looks happy, sounds happy and everyone around him is smiling.
“We knew it was important for us to start this tournament with a win. Luckily we were able to do it at the end and I’m very happy,” he said after his 94th minute winner, with a trademark curling free-kick, in the 2-1 victory over Mexico’s Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup.
“I’m very happy to be here, with the team and my family. We’re very happy with this choice. I want to thank the people once again. I hope we continue this way and that they keep joining us all year because for us this is very important,” he added.
Messi is a superstar but he has always appeared a somewhat reluctant celebrity.
Unlike David Beckham, the biggest name to move to MLS before Messi and now co-owner of the Argentine’s new club, or his contemporary Cristiano Ronaldo, the seven-times Ballon d’Or winner has never been fully at ease with his fame.
Playing at a 20,000 capacity temporary stadium an hour’s drive north of downtown Miami, on the surface is a huge comedown for a player who spent 17 years playing at Barcelona’s Camp Nou in front of crowd’s four times that size.
– Adoring fans –
But Messi appears to be enjoying the intimacy of the venue, where he is surrounded by adoring Spanish-speaking fans, thousands of them Argentine, many in his national team shirt.
Football romantics would have loved to see Messi end his career back in Argentina, but in Miami he gets all the familiarity of home, while still able to enjoy a degree of privacy, security and — not insignificantly — a reported $60 million a year salary.
Miami’s 18-year-old midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, born in the city to Argentine parents, was given a hug and kiss from Messi when the number ten replaced him in the 54th minute.
Cremaschi said the mood in the dressing room, after the win for a team in last place in MLS without a win in 11 league games, was transformed.
“It was pure joy, honestly. It was pure joy from everyone, from him, from us, to the owners, to the staff. And we’re just so happy that we could win again,” he said.
Miami have made it easy for him to settle in — he is surrounded by Spanish speaking team-mates, Argentine coaches, including his former boss at Barcelona and Argentina, Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino and club staff who share his language and culture.
At training this week he has laughed and joked with the players during the warm-ups and when he entered the field on Friday, skipper DeAndre Yedlin handed him the captain’s armband.
One of the smartest moves from Miami was bringing in the 35-year-old Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets to re-unite with his former Barcelona team-mate.
It was instantly evident on Friday that the near telepathic understanding between the two has survived their two years apart.
Miami were transformed when the pair were sent in and if that level of impact can be maintained, they may have plenty more to smile about in the months ahead.
With the Copa America being held in the USA next year, Messi has plenty to look forward to with Argentina as well as his club, whose next game is at home to Atlanta on Tuesday.
He has indicated that his triumph in Qatar was his last World Cup but there will be plenty in his homeland now wondering that if he stays fit and happy perhaps he might be tempted to try to win the ultimate prize one more time.