FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — So this is what it came down to: Lionel Messi standing 25 yards in front of the opposing goal in the final minute of a tie game. He had stood there in Barcelona, in Paris, in La Liga, the Champions League and World Cups.
Now he stood off Commercial Boulevard, wearing Inter Miami pink for the first time, playing in something called the Leagues Cup as a sold out crowd went museum-gallery silent.
All anyone wanted from this first game was one Messi moment, right? One magic trick. One pass, one move, one look, one run — maybe one goal, if the script broke perfectly right, to confirm why he changes the arc of American soccer.
And the script went Hollywood?
Messi wrote the ending with his left foot. He put the ball by a four-man wall of Cruz Azul defenders, past the diving goalie, and into the upper left corner of the net.
He then ran to the corner of the field as teammates chased after him, just as they had in Barcelona and Paris. Maybe the team’s owner got emotional there, too. David Beckham looked a little teary in the aftermath. And why not?
All the build-up and anticipation of his arrival was nice. All the headlines about soaring ticket prices and stories about how he’ll change soccer in America were titillating.
This is what matters most. Sports is a did-or-didn’t business. Messi did in his opening night with Inter Miami. The fact he gave Inter Miami a 2-1 win against the Mexican team, Cruz Azul, was mere backdrop to the larger story.
He announced his arrival to America. He showed he’s coming to win, not just to be a celebrity player. Inter Miami hadn’t win in 11 straight games? It sits at the bottom on Major League Soccer? It was in the Leagues Cup?
“I knew it was the last play, and I hoped to score to avoid going to penalties and secure the three points, as it was a crucial match for us to start the new tournament with a victory,” Messi told Apple TV. “It’s essential to begin this way for the group’s confidence, which has been working very well since I joined.”
It matters to him. That’s the message there and it was apparent from the moment he entered the game early in the second half. He didn’t start because his offseason ended with his first practices this week. That didn’t stop a rowdy crowd from announcing the reason they came.
“Messi, Messi,” fans chanted in the first minute of the game. And the eighth minute. And again after 12 minutes when a team-sponsored banner of Messi was unfurled over a sizeable part of the end-zone bleachers.
Mostly, everyone waited until Messi came on the field in the second half. If you wondered about how much one great player can change a game, this was your night.
Messi threaded a pass that DeAndre Yedlin couldn’t convert, then another that Josef Martinez couldn’t. He took a corner kick that nearly bent into the net. He took a pass, a late pass, and broke open against the goalie before passing to Martinez for an easy goal, but …
He knew it.
He motioned with his hand to pass the ball quicker next time. He was coaching teammates all the way Friday. A wave of the hand to Yedlin about spacing. Showing another where he wants the ball. Little gestures. Quick lessons.
As time wound down, as stoppage time started, it looked like the game wouldn’t be settled in regulation. But as Messi went for a pass, he appeared to catch a defender’s forearm to his face.
That gave him a direct kick and the night, the chance everyone wanted. Messi for the win? In stoppage time? Sometimes in sports the unbelievable is believable.
“As soon as I saw the free kick given, I thought this was the way it was meant to win. Especially when you have players like Leo and Sergio on the pitch,” Beckham said. “This is such a special night. It is such a moment for this country and this league.”
Excuse any exaggeration. For the soccer country, this mattered. And just one country. After his goal, after the crowd left, long after most had gone home, Messi came on the field with some players from Cruz Azul.
They wanted a memory beyond being beaten by the game’s biggest player. They took pictures with him.