FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) – Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami debut started on the bench.
Messi was not in the starting line-up but was expected to play on Friday night when Inter Miami hosted Cruz Azul in a league cup match at their new home ground. Team officials said all tickets — about 21,000, in the newly expanded stadium — have been sold, although plenty were available for resale in the hours before the game.
Messi arrived with the team about two hours before the game, wearing the team colors – pink T-shirt, black shorts. He stopped for a few photos and handshakes as he entered the tunnel leading to the locker room.
GOAT things. 😏
Messi x @KingJames pic.twitter.com/HBtkucee4w
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 22, 2023
He got a hug and shared a few words with LeBron James — another guy who knows a thing or two about going to Miami, after he joined the Heat in 2010 and won the first two NBA titles in a four-year stay — on his way to the bench. Messi took his seat and watched his new team, in their all pink jersey, shorts and socks, start the new season.
It was not clear how much Messi, Argentina’s World Cup champion and someone Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham calls the greatest player of all time, would be on the field in his debut. New coach Tata Martino said in recent days that he would let Messi, who has not played much of late and is working his way back into match form.
Messi signed a 2 1/2-year deal with Inter Miami that will pay him between $50 million and $60 million annually — and almost certainly more than $1 million per game. Some fans paid well over $1,000 for tickets to Friday’s game, although prices on the resale market dropped considerably in the hours leading up to the game.
Messi was introduced to his new fans on Sunday and trained for the first time as a member of the club on Tuesday.
Greatness knows greatness.@KingJames in the house! #LeaguesCup2023 pic.twitter.com/Ox2YIodqbg
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 21, 2023
Beckham was on the field about three hours before the game and took video on his phone as he scanned the empty seats. Messi jerseys were stocked in the team store inside the stadium and entrepreneurs were selling unofficial Messi jerseys on the road leading to the stadium.
The team was gearing up to collect the GOAT for Messi’s first game: James, Serena Williams and Tom Brady – like Messi in football, they are in the conversation about “greatest of all time” when it comes to the NBA, tennis and NFL – were already in attendance.
No matter what, it was a huge night for soccer in the U.S. — Messi made his Champions League debut while, on the other side of the world, the U.S. Women’s National Team opened their World Cup defense in New Zealand against Vietnam.
Messi decided in June to join Inter Miami. He considered a return to Barcelona, the club he spent most of his career with, after spending the last two seasons with Paris Saint-Germain.
But Inter Miami and MLS found a way to land the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, setting the stage for an unprecedented season for the club that has largely thrived in its first four seasons.
The Leagues Cup is a competition between clubs from MLS and Liga MX, the top Mexican league. Cruz Azul won the inaugural edition in 2019.
Neither club has enjoyed much success this season. Inter Miami has the fewest points in the MLS standings; Cruz Azul is the only team in the Mexican league that has yet to pick up points in the first three games of the season.