Lionel Messi gives MLS first taste of its star’s weight

Just before 9pm on Sunday, the greatest footballer of his time, and perhaps the greatest ever, walked over a temporary stage at his new home stadium. He hugged the owners of his new team, including former star David Beckham. Holding his new shirt – a pink No.10 – Lionel Messi grinned and looked up at the crowd and the fireworks.

If it felt like a dream that Messi, who won the World Cup in December as Argentina captain and has won seven Ballons d’Or as the world’s best player, chose Inter Miami of MLS as his team in the twilight of his career, his unveiling event was a proof that, yes, this actually happened.

“First of all, I want to thank Miami for this reception and the kindness since I arrived in the city,” Messi said in Spanish in his first public comments since his monumental deal, which runs through the 2025 MLS season, was announced on Saturday . “To be honest, I’m very emotional and very happy to be here in Miami and to be with you.”

For two minutes, Messi, 36, spoke directly to Inter Miami fans who chanted his last name throughout the night at DRV PNK Stadium, about 30 miles north of downtown Miami. Messi’s introduction was called La PresentaSíon, the presentation in Spanish, but with “Sí” (“Yes”) underlined. And in typical South Florida fashion, it took place in the rain.

By choosing Miami, where he already owns property, Messi turned down a chance to play in Saudi Arabia, where a team had offered him significantly more money. He also turned down the opportunity to return to Barcelona, ​​where he signed as a 13-year-old, won every major trophy and wanted to stay before moving to Paris-St. Germain in 2021.

Long before Messi’s time in France came to an unceremonious end this summer, the owners of Inter Miami had dreamed of bringing him to South Florida. The event on Sunday, and the weeks leading up to it, have shown just how much of a shock Messi has already delivered to the franchise, the region and soccer in the United States.

“There will always be a before and after Lionel Messi,” said Jorge Mas, the Cuban-American billionaire and managing owner of Inter Miami, which played its inaugural season in 2020.

“We are the beneficiaries of the legacy of the greatest player in the world who started at Newell’s Old Boys, went to Barcelona, ​​ended at PSG,” continued Mas, listing Messi’s former teams, including his youth team in Argentina. “But today it is in the hands of Inter Miami and its fans. This is our moment. Our moment to change the football landscape in this country.”

The rain eased as Messi spoke, but a torrential downpour prevented the early celebrations and flooded parts of this temporary stadium. (Inter Miami hopes to move to a proposed new stadium near Miami International Airport in 2025.) On Sunday, the 19,000-seat stadium certainly didn’t have the size or energy of the Camp Nou in Barcelona or the Parc des Princes in Paris, but most fans wearing teams or Messi gear. A shirtless fan waved a large flag with Messi wearing an Argentina shirt. Argentina shirts were the second most popular clothing choice, with a few fans wearing Messi’s Barcelona shirt.

The celebration, broadcast globally in English and Spanish on Apple TV, MLS’s first-year streaming partner, with a few glitches, purposefully coincided with halftime of the Concacaf Gold Cup final, which Mexico won 1-0 over Panama.

Before Messi addressed the crowd, Mas and Beckham spoke. Beckham, an Englishman who famously signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS in 2007, read his prepared comments from his cell phone, sprinkling in some Spanish. Mas used both languages ​​throughout his address. After all, Miami is the unofficial capital of Latin America, and Florida has the largest Argentine community in the United States.

“I know the people of South Florida will take all of you into their hearts,” Beckham said. “We are building a special club here at Inter Miami, a club that represents this special place and its people.”

Before Messi appeared, Beckham introduced the team’s second marquee signing of the summer, Sergio Busquets, Messi’s former team-mate at Barcelona. Busquets also spoke, but briefly. The night, imperfect and all, belonged to Messi.

Messi was not known to be talkative, but was succinct on Sunday. Wearing a white Inter Miami T-shirt and jeans, Messi thanked the team’s ownership group for making him and his family feel welcome. He said he hoped fans would keep watching and grow with the team.

“I have a lot of desire to start training and competing,” said Messi, who joins a team in last place in MLS’s Eastern Conference. “I came with a desire to always compete and want to win.”

Messi also thanked his teammates, several of whom were on the pitch.

“I am very happy to have chosen to come to this city with my family and to have chosen this project,” he said. “I have no doubt that we will enjoy it and we will have a good time and beautiful things will happen.”

After Messi handed over the microphone, a video was played on the big screen with many celebrities, such as retired Argentine basketball star Manu Ginóbili and Miami residents Gloria and Emilio Estefan, welcoming Messi to the city and wishing him the best of luck. Then Messi’s families and the owners joined them on stage to take pictures. Musical acts followed.

Afterwards, Messi signed autographs for fans in the stands. Tuesday is his first official practice with his teammates, and Friday will be his first game. This is his new home.

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