Lionel Messi was hunched over the ball, trying to catch his breath.

It was the 93rd minute of his highly anticipated debut as a newly-minted Major League Soccer player. Messi, arguably the best player of all time, who just seven months ago led Argentina to the World Cup title in Qatar, was preparing to take a potentially game-winning direct free kick in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

His new club, Inter Miami, were tied 1-1 with Mexican side Cruz Azul on the opening group stage matchday of the Leagues Cup, a competition that sees MLS teams playing Liga MX sides. Messi had been sandwiched by two opponents roughly 24 yards from the Cruz Azul goal. When Honduran referee Said Martínez blew his whistle and called the foul, everyone in the stadium, and the millions watching on screens around the world, wondered if a magical Messi moment was in store.

Cruz Azul goalkeeper Andrés Gudiño stood at the post to his right and set up a five-man wall, yelling frantically at his teammates — every inch matters when Messi is over the ball in this position. Cruz Azul winger Uriel Antuna, who had tied the match in the 65th minute, laid on his side behind the wall, to prevent Messi from trying to sneak a shot under the human barricade.

Messi, meanwhile, was going through his own personal ritual. He repositioned the ball with both hands then twisted it slightly into the ground, searching for the perfect spot. He looked up and picked his corner, then took three steps away from the ball, stopped and stared at it. The anticipation inside the stadium continued to grow, but Messi wasn’t ready to shoot just yet.

He fixed his collar and walked back to the ball. He moved it again, caressed it lightly with his hands and then stepped back again. As he took his paces, Messi looked up at the corner of the net he had chosen. Now he was ready.

Throughout his career, Messi has created a highlight reel of goals from direct set pieces. He scored 41 of them in league play with Barcelona and most recently Paris Saint-Germain. Many were from this same area of the field. It is Messi’s territory, and on Friday night, destiny rewarded him with another opportunity to remind the world how special a footballer he is.

The red dot shows where the free kick was taken from (Graphic: Jeff Rueter)

Messi’s free kick run-up is short and precise — two sharp steps, then boom. The Cruz Azul players who were in the wall began to hop in place as they prepared to time their jumps with Messi’s strike. Gudiño had settled into a position near his left post.

Now sure of where he was going with the ball, Messi opened up his left foot and curled a shot, with pace, over the wall. Before the ball had even met Gudiño’s net, Inter Miami’s new boy was off and running in celebration. Messi’s 42nd set-piece goal in club football is now the most memorable goal ever scored for an MLS team.

El primer gol de Messi con Inter Miami 🤯🤯👏👏

Messi scores in his first match with the club to give us the lead in the 94th minute.

— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) July 22, 2023

“It was set up for me at the end,” Messi said from pitchside after the match.

He described the moment with a nervous laugh, humbly unaware of its magnitude for US soccer followers. “I went for it, like I always do. I was lucky that it was on target, that the goalkeeper didn’t get to it and… that it was a goal (with a laugh).

“I’m so happy that we were able to get this win. We have to start winning, even though this is a different competition. For our confidence, it’s important that we win these games. I saw the goal and I tried to convert. I knew it was the last play. I was hoping to score in order to avoid going to penalties.”

Even though Messi has done this before, there were thousands of shocked faces among the 22,000 fans in attendance. The disbelief was palpable. Messi had delivered in heroic fashion in his American soccer debut.

Throughout the week, Inter Miami co-owners Jorge Mas and David Beckham, along with head coach Gerardo Martino, reiterated that Messi has come to the club bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference table to compete. It became apparent on Friday night that Messi is also here to entertain.

From the moment he stepped onto the field as a 54th-minute substitute, Messi glided past defenders and duped his markers with a classic body feint. He walked the pitch and threaded line-breaking passes with elite precision. The 36-year-old played all of the hits in this opening show, etching his setlist in American soccer lore.

“There was an energy in the stadium that, at any moment, something like this could happen,” Martino said. “It happened in the final play of the game, which dramatized the moment. We all know what can happen when there’s a free kick in that part of the field, and when (Messi) is wearing the jersey of the team that earned the foul.”

Messi (No 10) watches as the ball floats over the wall and towards the corner of the net (Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Robert Taylor had scored Miami’s opener late in the first half. On Messi’s free-kick winner, the 28-year-old Finland international was standing near the right side of the Cruz Azul wall. He was positioned as if he were going to crash the goal for a rebound, but instead he stood still and watched the ball sail over the wall into the net.

“I’m still a little bit overwhelmed by it, but it’s a great feeling,” Taylor said. “I was just enjoying the view. As soon as he hit it, I was like, ‘That’s a goal’.”



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Canadian international defender Kamal Miller had left the game with a minor injury in the 74th minute. As Messi prepared to take his free kick, Miami’s bench personnel looked on anxiously. Like the rest of the world watching, staff and players sensed that Messi, the sport’s ultimate matchwinner, was on the verge of something special.

Miller had taken his jersey off after being substituted but said he had put his No 31 shirt back on in preparation for Messi to score. Who wouldn’t want to be dressed for such an occasion?

“It was incredible. We felt like fans, not teammates,” Miller said, a wide smile across his face. “We all had that feeling that if there’s anyone that could pull up something off of that magnitude, that’s the right man. So the fact that (Messi) was able to get it done is incredible. We’re all so happy to have him here.”

Messi low-fives his teammates after scoring the winner (Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Inter Miami’s Argentinian-American midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, 18, has received a lot of attention this past week. He did interviews with Argentine television and spoke about playing with his idol Messi.

Cremaschi said that he didn’t want to come off the field, even when he saw his No 30 next to Messi’s No 10 on the fourth official’s electronic board. Yet, like Miller, Cremaschi said he celebrated Messi’s goal like an Inter Miami supporter.



The sights and sounds from Messi’s magical Inter Miami debut

“I was standing on top of our chairs,” Cremaschi said. “I wasn’t his teammate at that moment. I was another fan cheering for him. We all ran. We wanted to go celebrate but he went to the other side (of the field). When he came in (off the bench), a couple of us said that he was going to win the game for us, and that’s what happened.”

The reaction of Kim Kardashian, Serena Williams, Beckham and his family to Messi’s goal. 🤟

— FCB Albiceleste (@FCBAlbiceleste) July 22, 2023

Of course, there was dejection on the Cruz Azul side. They had outplayed Miami for 90 minutes, only to be sent home with the heads down by a moment of brilliance from Messi. It was an inevitable and bitter ending for the visitors from Mexico City.

“We know that a free kick from there is like a penalty kick for (Messi),” said Cruz Azul’s striker Augusto Lotti from the stadium’s mixed zone. The Argentinian-Italian Lotti had been part of Cruz Azul’s five-man wall for the goal and watched helplessly as Messi’s calculated shot went over his head. “He hit it really well. There was nothing we or the goalkeeper could do. He’s the best player in the world.”

“That’s football,” said Cruz Azul manager Ricardo Ferretti. “It’s oftentimes unfair. But if it were fair the sport wouldn’t have jokes. If there was a team that deserved to win (tonight), it was my team.

“Messi is a super player. He’s phenomenal. That’s the truth. He ended the game with a special talent that he has.”

There have been many great goals scored by MLS teams.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s magnificent LA Galaxy debut in 2018, against Los Angeles rivals LAFC, immediately comes to mind. It was a rock star, jaw-dropping moment from Zlatan.

But this was Messi. And it was unforgettable.



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(Top photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)