What stood out most were the half-smiles. They told the full story. Lionel Messi sat in a black warmup suit with the Inter Miami logo Thursday afternoon and introduced himself to the media nearly a month after introducing himself with his first, game-winning goal.
The first question was something about all the winning since arriving in America, and if this is what he expected, and he began his answer with by saying, “Actually, I was very happy when I came here.”
He then gave that small grin, that Mona Messi smile, that spoke of his warm feelings. There has never been a second act like this in sports, and that’s in good part because of Messi’s first act. It was full of success and burden, rare achievement and equally rare pressure, ending with him winning last winter his great white whale, the World Cup for Argentina.
“After getting the World (Cup) championship, I wasn’t missing any of the trophies,’’ he said. “The most important one was that one. … If I get (more), perfect. If not, no problem.
“I have achieved all my objectives, all the goals of my career,’’ he said. “Now I have new ones with this club, to help the club get titles and, personally, as well.”
This is his victory lap. He’s winning in ways that confirm his talent at 36. Inter Miami hadn’t won in 11 games before Messi & Friends arrived and haven’t lost in the six games they’ve played. The team with no hardware is in the finals for the Leagues Cup trophy.
But let’s be clear: His big race is won, his career burden done, and he’s in a rare place where all he has to do is show up and everyone is happy, too. It’s not just in South Florida.
“We played in Dallas the other day and the people welcomed me,’’ Messi said. “They embraced me, grateful and happy.” He said something about appreciating the chance, “to do it this way, with joy.”
This is a blue-sky place the biggest stars only reach in retirement, and only then if they’re lucky. Once, on a CBS studio set, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason pored over some last-second stats, frantically circling them with a pen, just before going on the air when he looked over at a placid Dan Marino.
“Look at him, he just has to be Dan Marino,’’ Esiason said.
Look at Messi. He just has to be Messi now. He still elevates sport to high art. But gone is the burden of winning a league title, a Champions League championship, or another World Cup at the highest level of competition. He alluded that other world, briefly, in a near-aside about his previous team, Paris Saint-Germain.
“It was difficult, yes, in Paris, but now it’s quite the opposite of what’s going on here and now,’’ he said.
He’s taken America by force in a manner that isn’t surprising. He’s made an irrelevant franchise the toast of soccer. He’s doubled Apple TV’s subscriptions to the Major League Soccer package. He’s set record sales for his jersey. But he didn’t frame his decision to come to Inter Miami as some legacy-affirming move.
“I don’t think much of that,’’ he said. “I’m here just to play and enjoy football, which I’ve loved all my life. I chose this place for that. I can tell you, today, of the decision we made. Not only the sport, but my family, how we live every day, how we’re enjoying the city and being welcomed by people.”
There was a question about how he’s adapted to his adopted area.
“I feel very happy, I’ve repeated that many times now,’’ he said at one point. “And I’ve said from the very beginning I chose coming here to this city because of the decision that we made over time. We didn’t make this decision overnight.
He gave the grin, the Mona Messi smile. That’s what you took away from all this. For all the words, that smile said he’s as happy to be in South Florida as South Florida is happy to have him.