Luis Miguel EchegarayESPN8 minutes of reading
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Sometimes in our game, an ending is so perfectly written it defies belief. There is no point in analyzing or trying to bring logic to it. All you can do is marvel at the magic, thank the football gods you were there to witness it and, most importantly, thank the magician who made it happen.
“It was like a movie that will play on repeat forever,” said Inter Miami CF coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino after watching Lionel Messi’s latest amazing feat. “It’s almost as if it was written… [Messi] is always there to write these stories.”
The Argentine manager reacted the same way the rest of us did when Messi hit a crazy free-kick winner in stoppage time to seal a 2-1 win over Liga MX side Cruz Azul on Friday in the Leagues Cup group stage, sending the DRV PNK Stadium crowd into an electric frenzy.
But if we treat this moment like a movie, as Martino rightly points out, then this story first needs a setting and an atmosphere that led to this almost unfathomable finale.
So let’s start with the scene.
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Under a clear, densely humid sky, a capacity crowd of 20,000 dressed in pink and black danced, pounded drums and chanted the one name they had eagerly awaited. The only name on the back of their shirts. The only name that could cause such excitement.
The only name that mattered to them. Lionel Messi.
They weren’t the only ones. Celebrities and superstars were also in attendance hoping to be inspired. Names like LeBron James and Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian and Marc Anthony — they all sat in the VIP suites, which in true Miami spirit are literally feet away from the players.
Latina artist Becky G sang the national anthem as fireworks lit up the sky before kickoff. Oh, did I mention there were also massive helicopters circling the arena?
The stadium DJ – knowing the crowd – played Bad Bunny, Regaton and Latin trap music throughout, while Spanish and English mixed throughout the evening. But in the end, especially in the first half, nothing else mattered apart from Messi.
The audience wanted magic. They wanted The flea. As soon as the game started, the chants broke out, “Messi, Messi, Messi…” and Leo just sat on the bench smiling at his wife Antonela Roccuzzo and their three children.
He hugged LeBron, greeted friends and loved ones and enjoyed every second. This was a happy Lion; a relaxed Leo. Not because he didn’t take it seriously, but because he embraced his new reality.
The first half came and went. The first 45 minutes might as well have been another night, because in reality the decisive moment came shortly after the start of the second half. As Messi and the bench began to warm up, the crowd rose from their seats knowing that time was up. The songs started again.
Then, in the 55th minute, the story evolved into the next chapter. Messi entered the pitch and the atmosphere inside the ground changed completely. The energy became almost existential. Not a single person remained in their seat as his name once again echoed on the ground. This was a historic moment as Messi – probably without realizing it – had just changed the landscape of American soccer culture with one substitution.
There he stood 5-7 feet tall, but he might as well have been a giant. He stepped onto the field and the entire state of Florida could have heard the chants.
As the minutes ticked on and both teams looked for an equaliser, Messi swung in front with his teammate Josef Martinez (both building a good friendship on and off the pitch) ventured across the front line whenever he felt like it.
Messi – used to the pressure of playing for Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina – was probably the most relaxed person in the stadium. The thing about being 36 years old is that he is now master of his own pace.
In a game, he is his own orchestrator. The first few steps on the field begin with a walk, a leisurely stroll where he examines the rhythm of the game as he parades between opponents … and as soon as he receives the ball, the speed changes dramatically.
There was one particular instance when Messi received the ball and without blinking bulldozed towards the final third, avoiding tackles before feeding a beautiful ball to Martinez.
Everyone – including the other players – knew this was a different game. Messi continued to play his own.
Drums played in the background and the entire fan base stomped their feet on the metal floor every time he did something. A fan wearing the goat mask appeared on camera and everyone cheered. It was clear: It wasn’t just a fight, it was a party.
The offside calls in the 86th and 88th minutes, when Messi received the ball and fed Martinez once more, and vice versa, were a tease – but also a prelude to what was to come. Fans weren’t worried, but they hoped that Messi would hopefully give them a piece of magic.
And because this is a movie, it happened.
The thing about Messi’s free kicks is that they are predictably unpredictable. You know what’s coming, you just don’t know how to stop it. There is a power and precision that only Messi can achieve and as soon as the ball went in the stadium erupted.
I actually took a breath and didn’t believe it was going in until I saw the reaction of those around me. Messi and his teammates ran to the corner and straight after The World Cup champion went to hug his sons. Serena Williams was in disbelief; David Beckham, co-owner of the club and someone also known for spectacular free kicks during his career, began to tear up.
This was not Messi’s arrival, it was his coronation.
“I knew it was the last chance,” Messi said of his goal after the game. “I just tried as I always do and luckily the keeper couldn’t get the ball.”
Miami fans will be hoping that this League Cup win will turn the fortunes around for a club that sits in last place in the MLS standings during the regular season.
“It is important for this team to win because we are not in a good position [MLS]”, Messi added. “I know this is another tournament, but it will help our morale.”
Hours after the match, fans circulated the area still chanting “Messi, Messi, Messi.” Car horns blared outside the parking lots. One fan told me he hopes Messi stays here forever. As far as we’re concerned, the memory of the evening is good enough for now.