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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Lionel Messi gives MLS first taste of the weight of his star

Lionel Messi’s deal with Inter Miami runs through the 2025 M.L.S. season.

By James Wagner

Just before 9 p.m. Sunday, the greatest soccer player of his era, and maybe the greatest of all time, walked across a makeshift stage in his new home stadium. He hugged the owners of his new team, including former star David Beckham. As he held his new jersey — a pink No. 10 — Lionel Messi grinned and looked up at the crowd and the fireworks.

If it has felt like a dream that Messi, who won the World Cup in December as Argentina’s captain and who has claimed seven Ballons d’Or as the world’s best player, chose Inter Miami of MLS as his team for the twilight of his career, his unveiling event was proof that, yes, this has actually happened.

“Before anything, I want to give thanks to Miami for this reception and the kindness since I arrived to the city,” Messi said in Spanish in his first public comments since his monumental deal, which runs through the 2025 MLS season, was announced Saturday. “To be honest, I’m very emotional and very happy to be here in Miami and to be with you.”

For two minutes, Messi, 36, spoke directly to the Inter Miami fans who chanted his surname throughout the night at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, about 30 miles north of downtown Miami. Messi’s introduction was called La PresentaSíon, the presentation in Spanish, but with “Sí” (“Yes”) emphasized. And in typical South Florida fashion, it took place in the rain.

In choosing Miami, where he already owns property, Messi turned down a chance to play in Saudi Arabia, where a team had offered him significantly more money. He also declined the possibility of returning to Barcelona, where he signed at 13, won every major trophy and wanted to remain before moving to Paris-St. Germain in 2021.

Long before Messi’s time in France came to an unceremonious end this summer, the owners of Inter Miami had dreamed of bringing him to South Florida. The event Sunday, and the weeks leading up to it, have shown how much of a jolt Messi has already provided to the franchise, the region and soccer in the United States.

“There will always be a before and after Lionel Messi,” said Jorge Mas, a Cuban American billionaire and managing owner of Inter Miami, which played its inaugural season in 2020.

“We are recipients of the legacy of the greatest player in the world that started at Newell’s Old Boys, went to Barcelona, ended at PSG,” Mas continued, listing Messi’s previous teams, including his youth team in Argentina. “But today it sits in the hands of Inter Miami and its fans. This is our moment. Our moment to change the football landscape in this country.”

The rain subsided by the time Messi spoke, but a torrential downpour hindered the early festivities and flooded parts of this interim stadium. (Inter Miami hopes to move to a proposed new stadium near Miami International Airport in 2025.) On Sunday, the 19,000-seat stadium certainly didn’t have the size or energy of Camp Nou in Barcelona or Parc des Princes in Paris, but most fans donned team or Messi gear. One shirtless fan waved a huge flag featuring Messi in an Argentina jersey. Argentina jerseys were the second most popular clothing choice, with a few fans wearing Messi’s Barcelona shirt.

The celebration, broadcast globally in English and Spanish on Apple TV, MLS’ first-year streaming partner, with a few glitches, purposefully coincided with halftime of the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, which Mexico won 1-0 over Panama.

Before Messi addressed the crowd, Mas and Beckham spoke. Beckham, an Englishman who famously signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS in 2007, read his prepared comments from his cellphone, sprinkling in some Spanish. Mas used both languages for the entirety of his address. Miami, after all, is the unofficial capital of Latin America, and Florida has the largest Argentine community in the United States.

“I know that the people of South Florida will take you all into their hearts,” Beckham said. “We are building a special club here at Inter Miami, a club that represents this special place and its people.”

Before Messi appeared, Beckham introduced the team’s second marquee signing of the summer, Sergio Busquets, Messi’s former teammate at Barcelona. Busquets spoke, too, but briefly. The night, imperfect and all, belonged to Messi.

Not known for being loquacious, Messi was concise Sunday. Wearing a white Inter Miami T-shirt and jeans, Messi thanked the team’s ownership group for making him and his family feel welcome. He said he hoped fans would keep watching and growing with the team.

“I have a lot of desire to start training and to compete,” said Messi, who joins a team in last place in the MLS’ Eastern Conference. “I came with a desire to always compete and want to win.”

Messi also thanked his teammates, several of whom were on the field.

“I’m very happy to have chosen to come to this city with my family and to have chosen this project,” he said. “I don’t have a doubt that we’ll enjoy it and we’ll have a good time and beautiful things will happen.”

After Messi handed over the microphone, a video played on the big screen featuring many celebrities, such as retired Argentine basketball star Manu Ginóbili and Miami residents Gloria and Emilio Estefan, welcoming Messi to town and wishing him luck. Then the families of Messi and the owners joined them onstage for photos. Musical acts followed.

Afterward, Messi signed autographs for fans in the stands. Tuesday was his first official training session with his teammates, and Friday will be his first game. This is his new home.

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