FORT LAUDERDALE – Lionel Messi made his first game for Inter Miami and he couldn’t have been better.
The international superstar was not in the starting lineup on Friday night against Cruz Azul but was included in the 54th minute. At 1–1, he earned a foul in the 90th minute and then shot a free kick into the top right corner, Inter Miami’s first win in two months.
Pink fireworks exploded over DRV PNK Stadium and Inter Miami fans let out their loudest roar since the club began playing in 2020.
“It’s hard to understand,” said midfielder Benjamin Kremaski. “It just doesn’t make sense, but it’s a dream to honestly share moments with (Messi) in moments like this.”
Defender Kamal Miller was on the bench and said he put the shirt back on because he felt Messi was about to do the unthinkable.
“It’s crazy that the whole crowd was expecting the ball to go right there, and he put it right there,” Miller said. “It was goosebumps and a surreal moment. I will never forget it.”
The team got off to a very sloppy start but overcame that, defender Jan Frey’s injury in the first half, and all the nerves and nervousness associated with Messi’s long-awaited debut.
Messi was noticeably quick in his first minute on the pitch. He made a clear combination pass with defender DeAndre Yedlin and shot down the right touchline, but then fouled in the corner. Every time the ball landed on Messi’s foot, the crowd gave extra cheers, but his passing was a spectacle too.
Fans chanted “Messi!” many times throughout the night, starting at the first whistle, and the sold-out crowd rarely sat down. Celebrities such as LeBron James and Kim Kardashian were in attendance.
“It was hard to hear each other on the field,” Miller said. “And you catch yourself looking at the touchline during the game. It’s incredible.”
Midfielder Robert Taylor scored for Inter Miami late in the first half thanks to a well-executed cross and an even better shot from the right post. It was the first time Miami had scored a goal in the first half since May 13.
In the first half, Frey suffered a horrific non-contact leg injury that took him out of the game. He was taken off the field with his arms around the Inter Miami training staff, and not leaning on his left leg. Noah Allen immediately replaced him on the field.
Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender was forced to make two big saves in the first four minutes due to weak play at the far end. This went on for several minutes as Cruz Azul forced a lot of passes and pressed hard.
Striker Leonardo Campana broke into the lead in the eighth minute, but a quick call from a lagging defender forced him to shoot from afar. Cruz Azul responded with several more long passes and created a great scoring opportunity that hit the post before Diber Cambindo rebounded over the net.
Inter Miami were no longer a threat until halfway through the half after Campana’s header went straight to the goalkeeper. He then landed another header into the frame in the 34th minute from a free-kick.
This slowly built Inter Miami’s momentum as Callender kept Cruz Azul in a stalemate.
In the 44th minute, forward Robbie Robinson made a high pass from under the bench to Cruz Azul to the opposite corner and accurately hit Taylor in the leg. Taylor made a move, moved to the middle and landed a right foot kick from the right post into the net.
Taylor puts us on the board
— Inter Miami FC (@InterMiamiCF) July 22, 2023
Soon Messi and Sergio Busquets debuted in the second half. They spent the first few minutes of the semi-warm-up in front of the fans’ section, then returned to the bench, changed from the red penny to the pink jersey and lined up at the center line.
It was an exciting moment when Messi and his former Barcelona teammate Busquets entered the field at the same time. Messi replaced midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, Busquets replaced midfielder David Ruiz, and striker Josef Martinez also entered the match for Campana.
— Sam Sklar (@sklarsam_) July 22, 2023
Cruz Azul, meanwhile, didn’t flinch when the superstar was replaced. The Mexican side kept attacking and finally broke Callender in the 65th minute.
Uriel Antuna fired a shot from the right of the net, which was sent off by a diving Callender to the top of the net.
Messi showed some early chemistry with his new teammates, especially Yedlin and Martinez. He gave each of them wounds, but he could not find the ending to score in the net. Busquets also gave Messi a quality service for his first shot, but it was blocked by defender Cruz Azul. Busquets then tried to put a chip on top of Messi’s defense, but he collided with a defender in the box and the whistle did not sound.
Messi and Martinez almost scored a goal in the 87th minute, but the touch judge quickly fixed the situation in offside. A few seconds later, Callender made a stop to save the game.
Cruz Azul committed a foul in the 90th minute from outside his penalty area, which turned out to be a serious mistake.
Messi took the hit and shot to the top right corner for the win. His debut couldn’t have ended better.
LIONEL ANDRES MESSI IS NOT A HUMAN. pic.twitter.com/2mBDI41mLy
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 22, 2023
“It was a special night,” Miller said. “It was what the fans deserved for so long. I’m glad we finally got a great team performance to bring them the joy and happiness they deserve.”
Inter Miami is quickly preparing for the second game of the League Cup. On Tuesday night at the DRV PNK Stadium they will host Atlanta United with three points in hand.