FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi’s debut gameday with Inter Miami has arrived.
Messi was expected to play Friday night when Inter Miami hosted Cruz Azul in a Leagues Cup match at his new home stadium. Team officials said all tickets — about 21,000, in a newly expanded stadium — had been sold, though plenty were available for resale in the hours leading up to the match.
Messi arrived with the team about two hours before game time, dressed in 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.
It wasn’t clear how much Messi, a World Cup champion for Argentina and someone who Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham calls the best player ever, would be on the field in his debut. He signed a 2 1/2-year contract with Inter Miami that will pay him between $50 million and $60 million annually — and almost certainly more than $1 million per match.
Beckham was on the field about three hours before game time, taking a video with his phone as he scanned the empty seats. Messi jerseys were stocked at the team store inside the stadium, and entrepreneurs were selling unofficial Messi jerseys on the road leading to the venue.
The team was bracing for a gathering of GOATs at Messi’s debut match: LeBron James and Tom Brady — like Messi in soccer, they’re in the conversation of “greatest of all time” when it comes to the NBA and NFL — were expected to attend.
No matter what, it was a massive night for soccer in the U.S. — Messi making his first Major League Soccer appearance while, on the other side of the globe, the U.S. women’s team opened its World Cup title defense in New Zealand against Vietnam.
Messi decided in June to join Inter Miami. He considered a return to Barcelona, the club with which he spent most of his career, 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 era for the club that has largely sputtered during its first four seasons.
The Leagues Cup is a tournament between clubs from MLS and Liga MX, the top Mexican league. Cruz Azul won the inaugural version 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 yet to record a standings point through the season’s first three matches.