Lionel Messi has always summoned a sense of inevitability, an unshakeable belief shared by his teammates and fans that he will produce in the biggest moments—and probably something spectacular.
That feeling was in the air Friday night, when Messi made his debut for Inter Miami before a jam-packed South Florida crowd that included LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Kim Kardashian. In the match’s waning seconds, and with Inter Miami knotted in a 1-1 deadlock against the Mexican side, Cruz Azul, Messi drew a foul about seven yards outside the penalty area and 25 yards from goal, an auspicious spot for his lethal left foot. What happened next was a foregone conclusion: Messi curled the free kick around and over the wall of Cruz Azul defenders, splashing the ball into the back of the net and securing victory for his new club.
Afterward, Messi’s Inter Miami teammate Kamal Miller marveled “that the whole crowd expected the ball to go right there, and he put it right there.” Inter Miami coach Gerardo Martino called it “a movie that we have seen before.” “It’s common for him, you know,” Martino said. “It looks absolutely normal, but it’s not.”
More than 12 hours after the match, Taylor Twellman was still in disbelief. Twellman, the lead commentator for Apple TV’s coverage of Major League Soccer, was on the call for Friday night’s match. But forget the dramatic goal: Twellman still can’t believe Messi came to MLS at all.
“Nobody ever thought it would be real,” Twellman, a former star in MLS for the New England Revolution, told me Saturday. “I think it is the pinnacle moment in this league’s history.”
Messi arrives stateside eight months after he reached a pinnacle of his own, leading Argentina to the World Cup title in December. And while expectations here won’t be as daunting in Messi’s soccer-obsessed homeland, Major League Soccer and its backers are still extremely bullish on the GOAT. Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas made the audacious observation this month that “Messi can make MLS one of the top three leagues in the world.”
“It is perhaps the most transformational moment in the history of the league,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told me a few hours before kickoff on Friday. “For that, there is no doubt.”
Messi announced last month that he would join Inter Miami and its co-owner David Beckham rather than return to his former club of FC Barcelona or accept a lucrative offer to play in the flush Saudi Arabian league that includes superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo. It took a league-wide effort to bring Messi to Miami, with MLS and its commercial partners all collaborating to get the deal over the line. Mas has said in interviews that Messi would earn between $50 million and $60 million annually through his two-and-a-half year contract with Inter Miami, but Messi will also reportedly receive a cut of revenue from Adidas, the league’s official apparel provider, and Apple, which just kicked off a 10-year broadcasting deal with MLS this season. In engineering such an elaborate agreement, MLS has shown as much confidence in Messi’s ability to increase exposure for the league as his teammates have in his left foot.
“For so long, the focal point of the sport really was the countries that basically were the birthplace for the game,” Garber says. “Now the eyes of the world are turning to the United States and Canada. You see it with the fact that the best player in the world is coming here.”