Máirtín Ó Ruairí
Game FOX Indoor Sports
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The pregame hug between LeBron James and Lionel Messi was warm and genuine. The (basketball) King’s smile was full of friendship. And the conversation – as far as you could see – seemed to go along the lines of “Welcome, my friend, here’s a seat at the top of the American sports table.”
A few hours later, Messi showed why he deserves that billing, not only with the free kick that sent the internet berserk and Shaking Inter Miami’s DRV PNK Stadium to metal studs, but by doing it in a way that makes this country truly irresistible – with a victory for the legend.
In the dying seconds, with the result of his first start on the line, he curled into a whole peach, the kind of thing that comes with an absurdly high level of difficulty, but you felt that he was going to do it anyway.
Because … Messi.
[Magic! Messi comes off bench to win Miami debut]
It was like a chase-down block from LeBron in overtime, or one of Patrick Mahomes’ sidearm beauties on a game-winning drive, or Serena Williams’ ace to the corner of the service box on game point.
American sports royalty is awarded one highlight at a time.
United States athletics audiences love winners, but she reserves her true respect for those who do it with panache, and provide evidence of her brilliance with regular flashes of things that leave those watching open-mouthed, shaking their collective heads.
Lionel Messi has an absurd free kick in his debut game with Inter Miami CF
Iconic status isn’t complete without the stamp of championship excellence, either, but Messi already has that, with the World Cup sealed last December, as well as numerous club and individual awards.
And greatness, it seemed already great on Friday night, not only recognizes greatness, but seems to have kept a special place for the arrival of Messi.
[LeBron James among celebrity fans at Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami debut]
Williams, the tennis superstar with 23 Grand Slam titles, was on hand for Inter Miami’s 2-1 win over Cruz Azul, and reacted with gleeful disbelief, screaming “whaaaaat” and punching the air in the head moments after her walk, left-footed strike hit the net.
Mahomes, on social media, posted the phrase “Wild man!” next to an image of a goat, or GOAT, above a video of Messi’s goal. There was even more celebrity celebration that came from. And, if Messi has his way, there will be much more of it in the coming months and years.
America has already enjoyed Messi, because soccer is the most global sport of all and it has reached an important place in this country now that it never had before.
Still, we are no different from any other nation in that we like it when things happen on our doorstep, and add value when they do.
Messi has now scored 700 penalty kicks in his career, the most in history, but this, his first in a pink Miami uniform, set a marker down. This was not only a step towards a brighter American soccer future, but a great leap.
To be clear, Argentina, nobody wants to steal Messi from you. The 36-year-old loves his homeland like nothing else, and victory in his national colors in Qatar last winter was undoubtedly his favorite moment.
Lionel Messi celebrates Argentina’s victory in the 2022 FIFA World Cup
But, if he continues to turn in show-stoppers like that, just wait and see, America is going to claim him, too. Because now he’s here, in your face, doing Messi things in real time, in Major League Soccer – and here in the League Cup competition shared between MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX.
It all feels different.
Inter Miami defender Kamal Miller represented Canada at the World Cup, the proudest moment of his life, but said this night “felt even bigger.”
In the minutes after the final whistle, Miami co-owner David Beckham fighting back tears of joy and the crowd still flowing from the energy, Messi showed another side of himself that has long amazed millions.
[How Lionel Messi’s Miami arrival mirrors the Beckham Experiment]
While his lifelong rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, has often shown himself to be relentlessly self-centred, Messi has always insisted that the team comes before everything, regardless of his exceptional quality.
Already, it seems, he is taking his responsibilities as Inter captain to heart. In an interview with MLS Español, Messi paid tribute to young defender Ian Fray, who had suffered a serious injury earlier in the game and was in deep distress before leaving the pitch.
“Let me dedicate this victory to Ian,” said Messi. “[He] who was suffering in the locker room because of the injury he suffered. He comes from two serious injuries, and today he is unlucky to go through another injury.”
That’s class. That’s captain. That’s Messi. And that is … one way to start.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.
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