Inside Lionel Messi’s incredible first month in Miami: Goals in EVERY game, nights out with the Beckhams… and now a potential first trophy tonight – just 25 days after his debut
- Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami take on Nashville in the Leagues Cup final on Saturday
- Victory would cap a whirlwind first month in the United States for 36-year-old
- DailyMail.com provides all the latest international sports news
The heavens had opened and, on this particular Sunday, talk of divine intervention swirled in the winds over Fort Lauderdale.
‘This is holy water!’ Inter Miami co-owner Jorge Mas shouted towards the skies. It was shortly before 9pm on July 16. Shortly before Lionel Messi was introduced to the 20,000 supporters who had waited in the heat and then sheltered from a storm. Shortly before Miami ushered in a new era for Major League Soccer.
‘This is our moment!’ Mas continued. ‘Our moment to change the football landscape in this country.’
Such grand hopes and hyperbole had been snowballing ever since the Argentinean announced his move to Florida.
Mas suggested Messi could turn MLS into a top-three league in the world. The 36-year-old was tipped to rescue a struggling team and inspire a new generation of supporters. There were even hopes his arrival could help erode structural barriers damaging US youth soccer.
Lionel Messi was unveiled as an Inter Miami player in front of a packed stadium on July 16
The event was delayed by a storm which brought howling winds and heavy rain in Florida
It all seemed rather optimistic – bordering on fanciful. It all meant the stakes could hardly have been higher when Messi stepped into the frenzy at DRV PNK Stadium.
The danger, of course, was that delusion would soon give way to disappointment. That after all the fanfare and best-laid plans, Messi’s move to Miami would fall flat. MLS has been there before, after all. And the early weather didn’t bode well: Messi’s grand unveiling was delayed by a tropical storm and co-owner David Beckham slipped on the specially-erected runway.
A month on, however, the World Cup winner has rewritten the script. Somehow, Messi has exceeded those great expectations – already the 36-year-old has made a seismic impact on Inter Miami and Major League Soccer. Off the field and on it.
His arrival has shifted the landscape in sales of tickets and jerseys and TV subscriptions and soon possibly the soccer calendar, too.
His first six matches, meanwhile, have brought six victories, nine goals and several moments of incredible drama. His seventh appearance could end with the first silverware in Inter Miami’s brief history.
LeBron James and Serena Williams were among the celebrities to attend Messi’s debut
The World Cup winner scored a last-gasp free-kick to secure victory over Cruz Azul in Miami
The casualties so far? One Mexican team, five MLS rivals, two Miami players – one released to make room for Messi, the other cut weeks after he questioned the marquee signing – and one cleaner, who was fired for asking Messi for his autograph.
By the night he walked into his new home, Miami had gone 11 MLS matches without a win. On Saturday night, Tata Martino’s side faces Nashville in the Leagues Cup final.
The dye was cast a few days after that wet and wonderful unveiling in Fort Lauderdale – when LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kim Kardashian turned up to see Messi come off the bench, take the captain’s armband and mark his debut with a last-minute free kick to beat Cruz Azul.
‘This is the way it’s meant to end,’ Beckham had thought when he saw the foul given.
‘It was like a film that will play on repeat forever,’ Martino added.
That 2-1 win set Miami on its way. Messi then scored twice in victories over Atlanta United (4-0), Orlando City (3-1) and Dallas, when he produced yet more late heroics – dragging Inter Miami back from 4-2 down, scoring another free-kick and then leading them to victory on penalties.
Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham celebrates with his family after victory over Dallas
His perfect scoring streak continued in the quarter finals against Charlotte (4-0) and in the semi-final win at Philadelphia Union (4-1). Next stop: Nashville.
Miami are huge favorites to win on Saturday night. Thanks to Messi but also thanks to Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba – his former Barcelona teammates who followed Messi to Florida – and Martino, his former coach with Barcelona and the Argentina national team.
‘They pass on this confidence to the younger players,’ Martino said this week. ‘He has this commitment to the game… and this is infectious.’
Logistically, Messi has forced a rethink: now matchdays and training require extra security, even tweaks in protocol.
He joined the team WhatsApp group without some teammates noticing. He helped sort one with tickets for his own unveiling and gifted Miami’s players Beats headphones. Teammates have reportedly saved his number under different pseudonyms – just in case.
Other new, unlikely heroes have emerged in Miami such as Finland’s Robert Taylor (centre)
It’s said that, on his first day, the 36-year-old – who lives a short drive from the team’s training base – was the first to arrive and others then shifted their schedule to follow suit.
Reports also claim that Messi and Busquets have stayed behind after training to work with academy prospects.
Already, they have helped mold other, unlikely heroes such as Finland’s Robert Taylor. He was languishing in England’s non-league a few years ago.
It’s not going unnoticed. Antoine Griezmann has been watching Messi’s impact and remains determined to end his career in MLS. Apple has announced a new docu-series chronicling the blockbuster move.
Messi’s former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets (left) and Jordi Alba have joined him
Inter Miami’s social media following has exploded, while Mas claimed recently that the number of subscribers to Apple’s MLS Season Pass has more than doubled since he signed.
The first day of Messi jersey sales, according to sportswear retailer Fanatics, were the best 24 hours of any player changing teams across all sports.
Between the news of his move and August 1, more Inter Miami merchandise has been sold than the rest of 2023.
On the field, the arrival of Messi – and Busquets and Alba – is bad news for Miami’s rivals. These first few weeks suggest they won’t be bottom of the MLS standings for very long.
But the pockets of other teams bulge when Messi rolls into town. Take Chicago Fire. It’s said that prior to Messi’s announcement on June 7, the club had sold around 8,000 tickets for the visit of Inter Miami in Miami. After the news broke, they flogged another 10,000 in around 10 hours. Before this week’s win in Philadelphia, meanwhile, the average ticket price on one site was $609 – nearly double the figure for the Eagles’ opening home NFL game.
One New York Red Bulls fan sold her ticket for Messi’s MLS debut next week and that helped pay for knee surgery.
Beckham enjoyed a night out with Miami’s new recruits (L-R): Alba, Messi and Busquets
Some owners want more freedom to put that extra cash to good use. Miami’s transfer business has reignited the debate around how to grow the league. Several club chiefs have long wanted looser spending rules.
‘I think the league rules are going to change,’ Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin said. ‘Him (Messi) coming here is going to change a ton, and it should.’
Union’s record transfer is just $2.8million. But as captain Alejandro Bedoya said: ‘Miami are pushing the envelope… it’s good for the league, it’s good for soccer in our country and our region. With the World Cup coming here (in 2026), we find ourselves at an inflection point.’
The president of the Argentine Football Association has reportedly invited Miami to join the 2024 Copa Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition.
That could see Messi return to Argentina. For now, though, he is enjoying his adopted home. The 36-year-old has been househunting with his wife Antonela. He has been shopping for cereal in Publix. He has been for lunch with the Beckham and Mas families. He has gone partying with Victoria, David, Alba and Busquets.
Saturday night’s trip to Nashville might give them another excuse to hit the town.
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