South Florida sports fans are a special breed. They’re selective and arguably bandwagoners. And why shouldn’t they be? After all, they’ve been awfully spoiled over the years. They had what is still the only NFL champion to go through an entire season and post-season undefeated. They had Lebron James and multiple NBA championships, perhaps not quite as many as he had callously predicted when he first took his talents to South Beach. And, in some cases, all they’d have to do is look in the mirror and see what most sane human beings would breathtakingly admit is pure perfection. I personally have known of a few such examples.
Which is why what happened last night, the culmination of a week that began in a downpour that welcomed the arrival in South Beach (well, Fort Lauderdale) of a superstar arguably even more accomplished than James to the area, despite the fact it occurred in what amounts to an in-season exhibition game that even what’s left of the sports sections of America aren’t even covering with results and standings, was so significant.
As Martin Rogers of FOX SPORTS INSIDER recapped this morning:
Lionel Messi has spent two decades making the extraordinary seem normal, but this was something special, even by his own ludicrous standards.
With mere moments remaining in his Inter Miami debut on Friday night, Messi unleashed a dream of a free-kick from just outside the penalty area, to give his new team a thrilling 2-1 victory over Mexico’s Cruz Azul in the League Cup at DRV PNK Stadium.
“I knew I had to score,” Messi told Apple TV. “It was the last play of the game. It was very important for us to get this win, it’s a new tournament, it is going to give us confidence moving forward.“
He’s done that kind of thing before, of course, but still … wow. What timing, what a sense of occasion. And what a moment in the history of Major League Soccer, which quite rightly feels that bringing in one of the best of all-time — just a few months after he won the World Cup — is a transcendent breakthrough for the league.
And as the ASSOCIATED PRESS’ Tim Reynolds reminds, it was a monumental gambit for all involved that, at least for one magical night, seems justified:
Some people paid hundreds of dollars to be able to say they were in the stadium for Lionel Messi’s debut for Inter Miami. Some paid thousands for their seats. The team’s owners committed well over $100 million just to have a chance at moments like this.
So far, it looks like money well spent.
The game’s greatest active player — a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and a World Cup champion — sent the ball over a wall of four Cruz Azul defenders for the winning goal, unquestionably the greatest moment in Inter Miami’s brief history. Fireworks shot into the night sky, and play resumed for roughly a minute before the referee’s whistle blew.
The anticipation for this game, which MLS does hope eventually draws attention to this month-long respite from the droning regular season by focusing on rivalry matches with Mexican League teams, was gargantuan. Messi’s smiling face has been plastered all over the area. Fans lined up in sweltering conditions, as bad as any the country is experiencing given the degree of humidity, for the chance to even see him perform in the makeshift temporary stadium in Broward County that currently houses the 29th-best team among the 29 who compete in MLS, They bought thousands of what are now becoming the fashion statement of the summer, the Miami pink that now looks a lot better on him than on any flamingo that ever graced a damp lawn in any summer.
And as Reynolds continued, it was an indeed an event for the truly beautiful and blessed who shoehorned their way into the undersized venue:
It was a gathering of GOATs at Messi’s debut match: LeBron James and Serena Williams were there — like Messi in soccer, they’re in the conversation of “greatest of all time” when it comes to the NBA and tennis. Music legends Gloria and Emilio Estefan showed up, as did Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and Kim Kardashian arrived saying one of her sons had a particular reason why he had to attend.
“He’s so excited to see Messi,” Kardashian said.
Everyone was. James — who knows a thing or two about making a highly celebrated move to Miami, after he joined the Heat in 2010 and won his first two NBA titles in a four-year stay — greeted Messi with a long embrace as the teams took the field. And after the goal, James acknowledged the greatness.
“INCREDIBLE,” James tweeted, with a goat emoji for emphasis.
JUST GOAT THINGS 🐐
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 22, 2023
I dare say, for once, Lebron was understated.
Will every match after this be as incredibly rewarding and exciting? Likely not. It will take a bunch of these efforts once the regular season restarts next month to even put Inter Miami in contention for a playoff berth. And as the Dolphins and Hurricanes start their camps, and if the Marlins continue their own surprising quest for their own playoff berth for the first time in a normal sized season in two decades, Inter Miami will have a lot of competition for attention in the coming months.
But for at least one night, Messi was pretty in pink. As we know plenty of his fans, old and new, are. Abd commanded full attention and appreciation.
South Florida sports fans, you celebrate in the way you know best.