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Soccer superstar Lionel scores spectacular late winner on Inter Miami debut

The Argentinian forward struck in a free kick in the 94th minute.
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Soccer superstar Lionel Messi scored a spectacular late winner on his debut for Inter Miami late Friday to clinch his first victory with the team.

With the scored tied at 1-1 with Mexican club Cruz Azul in the sold-out Leagues Cup match, the Argentinian forward curled a freekick into the top left-hand corner of the goal in front of more than 20,000 fans at the DRV PNK Stadium.

Messi began the night on the bench building up the suspense as he warmed up along the touchline, before he entered the field in the second half, replacing midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi.

But his debut got off to a nerve wracking start, as Azul’s Uriel Antuna struck a powerful low shoot to equalize shortly after he came on. 

Had he missed the free kick, the game would have gone to a penalty shootout. Instead, Messi ended it on his terms in the 94th minute.

“What I saw was the goal,” Messi said in an on-field interview amid the postgame celebration. “I saw the goal. I knew that I had to score.”

It took Inter Miami four years of planning and two years of pursuit to bring Messi — a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and a World Cup champion — into the club. 

“Worth it,” the team's co-owner David Beckham said earlier in the week.

The game was attended by celebrities from Serena Williams to Kim Kardashian. NBA legend LeBron James also greeted Messi from the stands before the game with a big embrace.

Celebrities including, Serena Williams, LeBron James, and Kim Kardashian
Celebrities including Serena Williams, LeBron James and Kim Kardashian look on prior to Messi entering the match.Stacy Revere / Getty Images

Thousands of fans had also turned out to welcome him to Miami and Major League Soccer Sunday, in a rain-soaked ceremony with fireworks and musical performances. 

The player’s move to the city has inspired an outpouring of enthusiasm and pride in South Florida, particularly among its Argentinian and broader Latino communities. Major League Soccer has at times struggled to connect with its Latino fan base, though its growth in popularity has coincided with the growth of the Latino population in the U.S.

Image: *** BESTPIX *** Leagues Cup 2023: Cruz Azul v Inter Miami CF
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his game winning goal for Inter Miami against Mexican team Cruz Azul.Stacy Revere / Getty Images

Messi’s multicultural appeal has energized the city and attracted more international star power to the team. His ex-Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets also joined Inter Miami, and Jordi Alba is expected to sign soon, Inter owners Jorge Mas and Beckham recently told The Miami Herald. 

Major League Soccer has traditionally had a reputation as a place where players from Europe’s top leagues come to retire. Brazilian soccer icon Pelé joined the New York Cosmos, part of the North American Soccer League  in 1975, two years before quitting the sport. David Beckham joined LA Galaxy in 2007 at 32. 

But Messi’s arrival could help move the needle to the next level in terms of profitability and notoriety as the league makes major gains in viewership, media rights and spending. 

Messi himself will earn between $50 million and $60 million annually with Inter Miami, and almost certainly $1 million per match, according to the Associated Press. His contract is set at two- and-a-half years.