Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi dribbles the ball chased by El Salvador’s Jorge Cruz as his teammate Rudy Clavel falls on the pitch, during a friendly soccer match at the Cuscatlan stadium in San Salvador, El Salvador, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
Thousands of fans, many of them in Lionel Messi jerseys, swarmed the Inter Miami team bus as it pulled slowly and carefully into the hotel in San Salvador at 1 a.m. Friday morning.
By daybreak, videos on social media showed street vendors all over El Salvador’s capital hawking pink No. 10 Messi jerseys for as cheap as $5 in anticipation of Inter Miami’s preseason opening match against the El Salvador national team, which ended in a scoreless tie.
It isn’t every day that Messi, and his former FC Barcelona teammates Luis Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba visit Central America, so Friday night’s game had the city buzzing. It was such a big deal that Nayib Bukele, the President of El Salvador, paid a visit to the Inter Miami squad and shook players’ hands at the hotel.
That type of frenzy is exactly what Major League Soccer, Inter Miami, and Apple and Adidas executives were hoping for when Messi signed with Miami last summer and brought his friends along later. The idea was that Messi would spread the MLS and Inter Miami brand around the globe, get fans overseas to tune into MLS.
That is what he has done and there is plenty more to come.
Jerseys of Inter Miami’s Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez are displayed for sale outside the Cuscatlan stadium prior to a friendly soccer match between El Salvador’s national team and Inter Miami, in San Salvador, El Salvador, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) Moises Castillo AP
The El Salvador game was the first of seven preseason matches Inter Miami will play over the next few weeks in five countries. The team will play in Dallas on Monday, head home for a few days and then travel 23,000 miles for a pair of games in Saudi Arabia, a game in Hong Kong and a game in Tokyo before closing the preseason with a home game against Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys, the hometown team of Messi and Miami coach Tata Martino.
Apple TV will broadcast the games from Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Fort Lauderdale to its MLS Season Pass subscribers. The most highly anticipated is a Feb. 1 game against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi club Al Nassr, although there are reports that Ronaldo suffered a calf injury and may not be fit in time.
Friday’s game against El Salvador was the Inter Miami debut of Suarez, the Uruguayan star forward who played with Messi at Barcelona from 2014 to 2020. The duo have long wanted to play together again and finally got their wish.
Inter Miami’s Luis Suarez reacts after missing a chance to score a goal during a friendly match against El Salvador’s national soccer team at the Cuscatlan stadium in San Salvador, El Salvador, Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo) Moises Castillo AP
Suarez and Messi started atop the attack with Benjamin Cremaschi, Gregore, and Busquets in midfield, newly signed Julian Gressel at right wingback and Alba, Noah Allen, Tomas Aviles, and DeAndre Yedlin across the back. C.J. Dos Santos started at goalkeeper in place of Drake Callender, who is in camp with the U.S. national team for a Sunday friendly in San Antonio against Slovenia.
There was some question whether Martino would start his star players after just six days of training camp, but he did, much to the delight of the crowd at Estadio Cuscatlan, which was awash in pink. Some fans showed their split loyalty by wearing shirts that were half Messi and half El Salvador national team.
The Big Four played the entire first half as fans chanted “Messi! Messi!”. There was a smattering of boos when Messi, Busquets, Suarez and Alba were subbed out in the second half by Leo Campana, Facundo Farias, David Ruiz and Christopher McVey.
Farias left the field on a stretcher in the 70th minute after suffering an apparent knee injury and Miami played the remainder of the game with 10 men.
The overall mood of the stadium changed once the quartet of superstars were off the field, as the fans began fully supporting their national team.
Miami dominated possession in the first half but could not find the back of the net. Messi seemed to get comfortable as the first half went on, and showed flashes of his field vision, ability to work in tight spaces and his clever passes. He almost scored twice.
Messi’s best chance was in the 36th minute, when he got a perfectly placed ball from Busquets and sent a volley towards the goal, but it was saved by El Salvador goalkeeper Mario Martinez, who also stopped the Argentine’s follow-up shot.
Alba had a chance to break the deadlock four minutes later, but his shot from the left was denied by Martinez. Suarez did not have a big impact in his debut, and clearly still needs to work on his timing with his new teammates.
El Salvador had a few chances in transition, challenging Inter Miami’s back four, which had Allen playing a more central role than usual to make up for the departure of Kamal Miller, who was traded to Portland. The hosts had a potential game-winning shot in the 83rd minute, but Styven Vasquez’s header bounced off the crossbar.
Martino said signing a center back is a top priority and it appears he found one. Multiple league sources confirmed that Argentine center back Nicolas Freire is finalizing a contract to join Inter Miami. Freire, 29, had been on loan with Greek club Olympiacos from Mexican team Pumas.
Friere is expected to sign a one-year loan deal with Miami and join the team in the coming days.
Campana said he felt the opening match was a promising start to the preseason.
“More than anything the first week we are working on fitness, so we have to stay calm, keep working on what we’re doing because we have a great group of players,” Campana said in a post-game on-field interview. “I was happy to be back with my teammates, we are like a family and looking forward to starting the season to show what we’re made of.”
Campana said it was wonderful to see so many Inter Miami shirts in the crowd.
Asked about the pressure of playing on a star-filled roster, Campana said: “We put the pressure on ourselves. We know the stars we are playing with. More than good players, they are great people. We are prepared for what’s to come.”
The team was scheduled to fly back to Fort Lauderdale after the game and will head to Dallas on Sunday for the Monday 6 p.m. game against FC Dallas.
This story was originally published January 19, 2024, 11:38 PM.
Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls and has been the soccer writer and University of Miami basketball beat writer for 25 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.