Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham had a front row seat as star man Lionel Messi put on a show in the Major League Soccer curtain raiser against Real Salt Lake.

The Manchester United and England great flew to Florida for the season opener and will have liked what he saw from Tata Martino’s ambitious team in Wednesday’s 2-0 win.

Messi put in a man-of-the-match display, producing some outrageous footwork, seeing a free-kick cleared off the line and hitting the bar directly from a corner before setting up Robert Taylor’s opener.

The 36-year-old received a half-time hug from Will Smith – one of the stars in attendance at upgraded Chase Stadium – and continued to play with an irresistible swagger.

While Miami lost their way as a team after their dominant first half, they dug deep and eventually killed off vastly improved RSL.

Messi showed brilliant strength, speed and close control to drive forward through the middle before playing in Luis Suarez, who set up Diego Gomez to score in the 83rd minute.

That moment gave Miami new life and the former Liverpool striker saw a debut goal brilliantly denied by Zac MacMath, who was guilty of allowing Taylor’s first-half strike to squirm past him.

Salt Lake’s goalkeeper also thwarted Messi at the end of an incredible run down the right as the hosts ended a challenging second half on a high.

In truth, the only person able to keep up with the Argentina skipper on Wednesday was his personal bodyguard, who went up and down the touchline tracking the star throughout the game.

Lionel Messi and new signing Luis Suarez are set to star as David Beckham-owned Inter Miami kick off Major League Soccer’s biggest season yet.

More eyes are on the United States and Canada’s top division than ever before as the league’s 29th season gets under way in Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday.

It is MLS’ earliest ever start to a campaign and begins with a standalone fixture as Miami play host to Real Salt Lake at newly renamed, and freshly upgraded, Chase Stadium.

Not only is the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner fit for Wednesday’s opener but Suarez is expected to make his competitive debut following his winter switch to Florida from Brazilian side Gremio.

Messi will be involved having overcome the inflamed adductor issue that saw him miss a high-profile pre-season friendly in Hong Kong, sparking fury from expectant ticket-holders.

“They’re playing and they’re ready to play,” Inter Miami coach Tata Martino said of Messi and the former Liverpool striker.

“If they’re required to play 90 minutes, we’re going to look at it always depending on the need of the team.”

Suarez is the latest former Barcelona star to rock up in Miami, where he has joined Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

“It’s good, very positive,” left-back Alba said on the eve of the MLS opener. “When we got here we found a coach, players and staff who are spectacular. Like a family. They treat us very well.

“For Luis, besides the fact we’re friends, he is going to bring us a lot in attack and is a great player.

“(The younger players) always listen when we talk and we are here to give them advice. We all get along well.

“In all teams you have veterans and young players, building a positive environment for the benefit of the team.”

Messi, Busquets and Alba have already won their first trophy in Miami’s eye-catching pink kit, having roared to victory in the inaugural Leagues Cup last year.

The competition provided a memorable start to their life in North America and Alba is eyeing more silverware this term.

“We have a lot of big players but that doesn’t mean anything, you have to show what you can do,” the former Spain international said. “It is going to be hard.

“Hopefully we can win all the titles. I understand the fans’ enthusiasm and the expectations they have for the team, but we have to show it on the field and we think we’re on a good path.”

Lionel Messi said it was a “shame” he could not play in Inter Miami’s pre-season friendly in Hong Kong on Sunday, with his absence leaving angry fans demanding a refund.

Messi, who has been suffering with a hamstring injury, was left on the bench as his side beat a Hong Kong XI 4-1, much to the anger of local fans who had turned up in numbers in expectation of seeing the eight-time Ballon D’Or winner.

Inter co-owner David Beckham was also greeted with boos at a post-match speech while the Hong Kong government later expressed its “deep disappointment” over Messi not playing and at organisers for “failing to provide a detailed explanation promptly”.

Beckham’s MLS side have since moved on to Japan where they will play Vissel Kobe on Wednesday and Argentina superstar Messi trained on Tuesday.

The World Cup winner said in a press conference shown on Sky Sports: “Unfortunately in football things can happen in any game, that we may have an injury. It happened to me.

“I couldn’t play in the Hong Kong match, and it was a shame because I always wanted to participate, I wanted to be there and even more so when it came to these matches.

“When we travelled so far and people were so excited to see our matches. I hope we can return and we play another game and I can play as I do whenever I can. But the truth is that it is a game that I was not able to participate.”

Over the course of the last decade, football has grown substantially in the Dominican Republic. The founding of the professional Liga Dominicana de Futbol paved the way for a new era of the sport in the Caribbean country.

At the national team level, the fruits of that labour are apparent, evidenced by their runner-up finish in the 2022 Concacaf Men’s Under-20 Championship, which not only qualified Dominican Republic for a first World Cup in any age group, but also punched their ticket to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The growth of football in the Dominican Republic is also taking shape in the international arena at the club level. Since 2018, there have been four instances in which a team from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean country have qualified for the Concacaf Champions Cup, the latest being Moca FC, who will participate in this year’s edition.

Moca are set to make their Champions Cup debut next month, when they lock horns with Major League Soccer (MLS) side Nashville SC in Round One. This, as a result of their third-place finish in last year’s Concacaf Caribbean Cup.

The history of Dominican teams in the Champions Cup actually stretches back to 1973 when Universidad Catolica became the first club from the country to compete in the tournament. Then, Universidad Catolica squared off in the First Round of the Caribbean Zone with eventual champions SV Transvaal of Suriname and lost 0-8 and 0-6.

Nearly two decades later in 1992, San Cristobal FC got their first crack at Champions Cup and defeated Unique FC of the US Virgin Islands 5-4 on aggregate in the Preliminary Round of the Caribbean Zone thanks to a 2-1 win and 3-3 stalemate.

San Cristobal FC’s run ended shortly after when they went down 3-4 on aggregate to Guadeloupe’s Solidarite Scolaire, based on a 3-3 stalemate and 1-0 loss.

San Cristobal returned to Champions Cup three years later in 1995, but suffered a 1-2 defeat on aggregate to Haiti’s FICA in the First Round of the Caribbean Zone.

After a lull, Dominican Republic teams returned to the Champions Cup arena, courtesy of Cibao FC, who won the 2017 Concacaf Caribbean Club Championship.

Despite a heavy 0-7 aggregate defeat to eventual champions and Mexican giants Chivas in the Round of 16 of the 2018 Champions Cup, Cibao FC’s qualification showed that Dominican Republic football was on the rise.

A year later, Atletico Pantoja followed suit in the 2019 edition of the Champions Cup and exited at the Round of 16 after a 0-5 aggregate loss to New York Red Bulls. Atletico Pantoja then made their second appearance in the tournament in 2021 and made history against five-time Concacaf champions Monterrey.

Even though they were eliminated 1-6 on aggregate Lisandro Cabrera scored the club’s first Champions Cup goal when he found the back of the net in the second half of the return leg.

Now in 2024, an opportunity exists for debutants Moca FC, to blaze a new trail and rewrite the history books with victory over Nashville SC, which would book them a Round of 16 date with Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami.

 

Phil Neville was appointed as the new head coach at Major League Soccer outfit Inter Miami after ending his tenure as England Women boss, on this day in 2021.

Inter Miami confirmed the news just a few hours after the Football Association announced the then 43-year-old was stepping down from his role with the Lionesses with immediate effect.

The club are co-owned by Neville’s former Manchester United and England team-mate David Beckham, who is also his fellow co-owner of League Two side Salford.

Neville said in a statement on Inter Miami’s website: “I am incredibly delighted for this opportunity to coach Inter Miami and to work with (the club’s new chief soccer officer and sporting director) Chris (Henderson) and the entire ownership group.

“This is a very young club with a lot of promise and upside and I am committed to challenging myself, my players and everyone around me to grow and build a competitive soccer culture we can all be proud of.

“This fantastic soccer-loving market deserves consistent performances and a winning mentality and I look forward to getting to work.”

Neville guided England to the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup and was previously set to end his role in charge when his contract finished in July 2021. But he cut his time short and stepped down that January due to the 2021 European Championship being pushed back to 2022 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

England appointed Sarina Wiegman as Neville’s successor and they went on to win Euro 2022 before she guided the Lionesses to the 2023 World Cup final.

Beckham said: “I have known Phil since we were both teenagers at the Manchester United academy. We share a footballing DNA, having been trained by some of the best leaders in the game and it’s those values that I have always wanted running through our club.

“Phil has deep experience in football, as a player and as a coach at both club and international level and over his career he has worked with many of the finest managers and players in the game.

“I know his qualities as a person, his decency, loyalty and honesty – and his incredible energy and work ethic.

“Anyone who has played or worked with Phil knows he is a natural leader and I believe now is the right time for him to join.”

Neville led Miami to the 2022 MLS Cup play-offs but was sacked in June 2023 with the club bottom of the eastern conference following a run of 10 defeats in 15 games.

The 46-year-old returned to management in the MLS in November 2023 and is currently in charge of the Portland Timbers.

Luis Suarez's performances for Gremio show he would have few problems in adapting to Major League Soccer if he joins Inter Miami, says former Los Angeles FC defender Giorgio Chiellini.

Suarez is reportedly in talks with Miami over a move which would see him reunited with former Barcelona team-mates Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets.

The Uruguayan is seemingly closing in on a one-year deal with the MLS outfit after spending 2023 with Gremio, who finished second to Palmeiras in their first season back in Brazil's top flight, having spent the previous campaign in the second tier. 

Suarez scored 17 league goals for Gremio throughout the year, also adding 11 assists to give him the most total goal involvements (28) in the Brasileirao.

The striker, who will turn 37 in January, hit 27 goals across all competitions before departing as a free agent, and recently retired defender Chiellini says he would thrive in MLS.

"You see what Suarez did this year in Brazil… Brazil is not considered a weak league," Chiellini, who was famously bitten by Suarez at the 2014 World Cup, told Stats Perform. 

"Suarez scored almost 30 goals, we still see something there and it's still really good. Now football is changing all over the world. 

"There are less differences between some leagues in Europe and other countries. The only league that's very different from every other one, I think, is the Premier League. 

"But to be honest, the other ones we can compare, and you can also find good players in some weird leagues that some years ago you never considered. Now it is very different."

Lionel Messi's arrival at Inter Miami has brought more attention to MLS, with Giorgio Chiellini hailing the impact of the World Cup winner and likening his move to when David Beckham arrived.

Former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England star Beckham left the Spanish capital for LA Galaxy in 2007 as the dazzling midfielder's move captured the imaginations of many in the United States.

Beckham has since retired and created his own MLS franchise in the USA, bringing the likes of Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba to his newly established Miami side.

Juventus great Chiellini also joined MLS, signing for Los Angeles FC, winning the MLS Cup Final last year before defeat in this season's edition on Saturday to Columbus Crew.

And he vouched for the impact of Messi's move to Miami.

"I think that when Messi joined it was comparable to when Beckham joined," Chiellini told Stats Perform.

"And it's something that the league, but also the players, are very happy about because there is a lot of possibility for the future.

"What Messi did was huge for everyone and now there is much more consideration for the league, much more attention and it helps everyone."

Former Italy centre-back Chiellini announced his retirement on Monday, with reports suggesting the 39-year-old will move back to Juventus to take up a boardroom role.

The European Championship-winning defender will at least be thankful he does not have to face Beckham's Miami again next season.

A Messi-inspired Miami powered to a Leagues Cup triumph, with the Argentina captain scoring 10 goals.

"I don't know how every team could face and beat Miami next year," Chiellini added on Miami, who are reportedly close to signing former Barcelona and Liverpool forward Luis Suarez.

"Fortunately this year I met with Messi when they were at the bottom of the table and then he had one month out.

"They were still a really good team, it was one of the best nights and atmospheres. That's very good for the league, very good for the future of the league."

Gerardo Martino is an excellent man-manager and would have made Inter Miami MLS Cup contenders had a Lionel Messi-inspired Herons been able to gatecrash this year's playoffs.

That is the view of Houston Dynamo midfielder Hector Herrera, who played under the former Barcelona boss when he coached Mexico's national team between 2019 and 2022.

Having guided Atlanta United to the MLS Cup in 2018, Martino became Miami boss in July as the David Beckham-owned franchise brought in former Barcelona trio Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. 

Those arrivals immediately led to an upturn for Miami, who won the Leagues Cup in August following a series of mesmerising displays from Messi, but they were unable to force their way into the playoffs.

Messi only made four regular-season starts for Miami this year as the Argentina great battled a niggling injury, and the Herons ultimately finished nine points adrift of the Eastern Conference's wild card spots.

Miami will certainly be among the favourites to enjoy a postseason run in 2024, and Herrera feels their rivals were slightly fortunate to see them fall short this campaign.

Asked what makes Martino special as a coach, Herrera told Stats Perform: "I think his personality and the work he does on every team he has.

"That is what has made him win so many things and be so well-known in the world of football. 

"Personally, he is a coach who has helped me a lot, I have a great relationship with him and I love the way he plays. 

"He has shown it with every team he has had and until today at Inter Miami he gave another face to the team and got better results. 

"We knew that if they entered the playoffs, they were going to be one of the favourite teams and were going to compete for the championship."

Herrera fell just short of reaching the MLS Cup Final after the Dynamo were defeated by Los Angeles FC, who will face Columbus Crew following their comeback victory over Supporters' Shield winners FC Cincinnati.

Luis Suarez's proposed move to Inter Miami would be a suitable fit, with the striker capable of further growing the profile of MLS if he is reunited with Lionel Messi in Florida. 

That is according to Suarez's former Atletico Madrid team-mate Hector Herrera, who says the Uruguayan is a "winner" and would face no problems in adapting to the league.

Suarez has been strongly linked with a move to Miami, where Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have all been reunited with former Barcelona boss Gerardo Martino.

Having won LaLiga five times during eight years in Spain with Barca and Atleti, Suarez returned to his boyhood club Nacional in 2022 before heading to Brazil to join Gremio for 2023.

Reports suggest Suarez may join Miami as a free agent after Gremio coach Renato Gaucho confirmed he is set to depart on Saturday, and Herrera believes MLS would be the perfect destination for the 36-year-old.

"Hopefully he can come to this league and help it continue to grow," the Houston Dynamo midfielder, who played with Suarez in Madrid between 2020 and 2022, told Stats Perform.

"With the quality of player he is and as a person, he will surely help any team that he comes to. It would be a pleasure to see him and face him again.

"He has played in many leagues, in many teams, and I don't think it will be difficult for him to adapt because he is a winner. 

"Obviously we know that he will contribute a lot to the team that he goes to, and to the whole league as well."

Suarez leads all Gremio players for goals (15) and assists (12) in the Brazilian top flight this season, with the team currently sitting in fourth after winning promotion back to the first tier last year.

Herrera feels he would be a real asset for Miami, who won the first trophy in their history in August as Messi led them to glory in the Leagues Cup.

Asked about the prospect of Suarez teaming up with Messi, Herrera said: "I have no doubt that he could go to that team because I know that they are great friends and their families have a good relationship. 

"It makes sense for him to come to Inter Miami. Messi's arrival gave another face and another perspective to the league and will help it grow. 

"We are talking about the current winner of the Ballon d'Or and it is a pleasure to have him in the league, to be able to face him and make MLS continue to grow. 

"We have seen the level that he has shown since he arrived, and surely next year will be even better."

Lionel Messi's World Cup success with Argentina should be enough to win him the upcoming Ballon d'Or, says former England striker Jermain Defoe.

Messi finally achieved World Cup glory with La Albiceleste in Qatar last year as Argentina beat France on penalties in the final to win international football's top prize for a third time and the first since 1986.

Messi won the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player, finishing with seven goals and three assists from seven appearances, playing every single minute of Argentina's campaign to lead them to silverware.

Defoe believes Messi's talismanic displays in Qatar make him the rightful winner of the upcoming Ballon d'Or, having already claimed the coveted award seven times before, two more than any other player has managed.

Speaking to Stats Perform at the Legends of Football event, in aid of Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy, Defoe said: "Messi won a World Cup, so it's difficult to see past that.

"I think what he's done for the game – him and [Cristiano] Ronaldo, and other players as well – but because he's won a World Cup, and not only winning the World Cup but the way he performed in the tournament.

"Because the pressure was on, and it's probably his last, so to do that, go out the way he has, in terms of World Cups – I think you just have to give it to him."

 

Messi's World Cup heroics cap glittering career

Many felt Messi needed to win the World Cup to confirm his place as the best football player of all time, and he responded with a magnificent campaign in Qatar before Argentina ultimately took the crown.

Messi scored twice in the final, finishing just one goal behind Golden Boot winner Kylian Mbappe, who netted a hat-trick on the losing side as his side finished runners-up.

His extraordinary tournament saw him score in the group stage, round of 16, quarter-final, semi-final and final, the first player to ever achieve that feat at a World Cup, while his 26 appearances at the tournament is also a record, after he surpassed Lothar Matthaus.

Messi's goals made him the first ever South American player to score in both the World Cup and Champions League final, and he joined his idol Diego Maradona as the only two players to score five or more goals and create 20 or more chances in a single World Cup tournament.

 

The now-Inter Miami forward became the first player to win the Golden Ball at two World Cup editions, while his 26 goals for Argentina at major tournaments is the most of any South American player in history.

Whether all that will be enough for Messi to win the Ballon d'Or will be revealed on October 30 at a ceremony in Paris, with the likes of Manchester City's Erling Haaland and Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior expected to challenge.

Lucas Leiva hopes his former Liverpool and Gremio team-mate Luis Suarez will resist the urge to follow Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba to Inter Miami.

Liverpool and Barcelona great Suarez joined Gremio in January, having helped his boyhood club Nacional to the Uruguayan Primera Division title on his return to South America last year.

Suarez has scored four goals in 12 appearances in the Brazilian top flight this campaign, but his future is in doubt amid reports he is Miami's next big-name target. 

Miami have already signed Suarez's former Barca team-mates Messi, Busquets and Alba, and Sunday brought confirmation they had traded with the San Jose Earthquakes to gain another international registration slot.

That move has heightened speculation regarding a move for Suarez, and while Lucas understands the draw of MLS, he hopes Gremio can keep the striker.

Asked about Suarez's future, Lucas – who retired in March after being diagnosed with a heart issue – said: "He made a fantastic impact here in Brazil at Gremio. 

"I think made the right move. Luis is a world-class player, we don't need to speak about his qualities and what he's doing here in Brazil. 

"He's been linked, but I just hope he can stay at Gremio because it's my club and he's my neighbour here!

"I hope he stays a bit longer but MLS is getting attention from every player and from the fans. It's normal that he will be linked with big teams like Inter Miami."

After Messi marked his Miami debut with a dramatic free-kick winner against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup, there has arguably never been a more compelling time to follow MLS.

Lucas is among those excited by the league's potential, adding: "MLS is growing every year, people are watching more MLS. If you look back maybe 10 years, nobody would have expected that. 

"Americans know how to do these things, so well done to them. Messi going there will just attract a lot of fans and people who will be following the league, so it's great.

"It's great because football should be everywhere in the world because it is a fantastic sport that people love to watch. 

"We can see him in another league, not in Europe. In America, it's a great thing for the fans that love football. It's a league that is improving and is growing and getting better every season."

Commissioner Don Garber says Major League Soccer is on a “rocket ship” and believes Lionel Messi’s move to Inter Miami will take the competition to new heights.

After Pele’s move to New York Cosmos in 1975, MLS kicking off in 1996 and David Beckham’s 2007 switch to the LA Galaxy, this summer saw another seismic moment in North American football.

Global star Messi’s move to Miami just seven months after lifting the World Cup with Argentina in Qatar sent ripples across the footballing world.

The 36-year-old’s last-gasp free-kick winner on his debut against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup on Friday only increased attention on a move that Garber is thrilled about.

“MLS has been on this sort of rocket ship for a while,” said the league’s commissioner since 1999.

“Every day that you think they don’t maybe there’s a quiet period and you can settle in, something else happens that gives you even more momentum, more energy and more sort of optimism about where things are going.

“I think the time is going to come where these great things become expected, special moments are going to be expected and it’s not going to be ‘boy, is this the most special time in the history of the league?’”

Garber takes great pride in the fact “the best player in the history of the game made MLS his league of choice” when he could have gone anywhere.

The commissioner says the Argentinian’s arrival underlines the league’s “unending ambition”, perhaps meaning that one day the best players on the planet will move to North America at 26 rather than 36.

“I think you need to start with getting the best of all time choose us now,” Garber said when that potential change was put to him.

“What will that look like in the years to come and perhaps it will because I think the perception of Major League Soccer is going to change dramatically over the next number of years.

“I think our own ambition is going to change as we all see how all of this plays out.

“But I think because there are a handful of really big names who come at the end of their career, everyone has this label that they put on.

“I mean, David Beckham was 31. He went to Milan and PSG after.

“Yet nobody was saying to Zlatan when he left LA and then he played for Milan for two years and was leading scorer for a while that AC Milan is a retirement club.

“So, I think that’s what all you international pundits like to say but we actually feel really good about the dynamic of our player rosters.

“This concept of a designated player – someone who is outside the (wage) cap who is internationally renowned – that you do need someone who has a legacy of popularity.”

The designated player rule was brought in when Beckham arrived in MLS, with his unique deal allowing him the option to purchase an expansion club at a discounted price.

That team was Miami and the England great looked emotional when Messi made his debut 16 years to the day after he stepped out for his Galaxy bow.

“It fulfilled a dream that he had to really make an impact and follow up on his commitment from the earliest press conference in 2014,” Garber said of the Inter co-owner.

“David stood up there and said ‘I’m going to bring the best players in the world here to Miami – this is a city I love, it’s a team that I’m going to build, I’m going to make it great and I love the league’.

“It’s just not often that things align, and you sort of deliver on the things you say you’re going to deliver. I think that’s cool.

“David is a special guy. People don’t understand how smart David Beckham is, how thoughtful he is and how hard working he is.

“Obviously, you know that he’s very accessible and he’s very humble, but he had a laser focus from the very beginning when he walked off the field: ‘this is what I want to do and this is what it’s going to look like’.

“And it isn’t often where it all aligns and I was emotional with him when I saw him on Sunday night (at Messi’s unveiling).

“Very happy for him and really proud of him. It’s cool.”

John Barnes is not convinced Lionel Messi's arrival will help propel MLS into being one of the biggest sporting competitions in the United States.

Messi has joined Inter Miami, with the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner snubbing a move to Saudi Arabia in order to head to MLS.

The 36-year-old, who has been joined in Florida by Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, is set to make his Miami debut in the Leagues Cup against Cruz Azul on Friday, and the hype around his arrival has been understandably huge.

Yet former Liverpool star Barnes is unsure whether Messi is enough to make football as popular as basketball or American football in the USA.

Barnes referenced global superstars who went to play in the USA in the 1970s as an example of football being unable to bridge the gap.

He said to Stats Perform: "Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johann Cruyff went to America in the 1970s, three of the best players in the world and what was the seismic shift then?

"So the fact that we've got some 35 and 36-year-olds going now, what difference is there? There's nothing new. In life, in football, there's nothing new. 

"People forget that this happened before and, of course, the shift in football isn't like in Saudi Arabia, it's not about getting two or three superstars.

"It's about developing the other players and having other players going there, not just paying lots of money for two or three superstars.

"Yes, you can market him in whichever way you want. But until our football, overtakes basketball, American football and baseball, nothing will really change in America.

"So I can't see that really impacting over there."

Gary McAllister, another ex-Liverpool player, did not wholly echo Barnes' sentiment, though.

Indeed, McAllister believes Messi's move to MLS is comparable to that of David Beckham, who joined LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007.

"I think with the pictures I've seen so far on his arrival, I think it's similar to when David Beckham went to MLS as well," McAllister said.

"That brought so much publicity to the sport in that country and it has really grown, I think looking at the way with the diversity over there as well."

McAllister acknowledges football still has a way to go to catch up to the NFL or NBA.

He added: "It's competing against sports that have been there for a very long time and are very much established. But I think he's still a player who has got plenty to give, and knowing where he's playing as well, there's a big Hispanic influence in the game in the US, so I think he'll bring fans to the stadiums.

"When you look at the attendances right across the board in the U.S. and MLS it's definitely on the up. And to capture someone like Messi is a big coup for MLS and Miami as well."

Lionel Messi began his Inter Miami career with a bang as the Argentinian magician ended his debut with a stunning free-kick winner against Cruz Azul deep in stoppage time.

Seven months on from lifting the World Cup, the eyes of the footballing world were trained on Florida as the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner made his eagerly anticipated first appearance.

Messi’s Miami debut has been years in the making and proved well worth the wait.

After Robert Taylor’s excellent opener was cancelled out by Uriel Antuna, the 36-year-old struck at the death to send DRV PNK Stadium delirious and seal an unforgettable 2-1 Leagues Cup win.

It was the dream end to an evening that attracted fans of all ages in ‘Messi 10’ shirts, with stars like LeBron James, Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian and, of course, David Beckham among those in the sold-out, expectant crowd.

The proud Miami co-owner watched on from a box next to the dugout, where the early exchanges made for uncomfortable viewing as Miami looked every bit the Eastern Conference’s bottom side.

Inter rode out that early storm and took the lead just before the break as Taylor’s exquisite low strike went in off the post to Messi’s delight.

The forward was cheered throughout and received a rapturous reception when brought on in the 54th minute, taking the armband as Sergio Busquets also came on for his debut.

Jordi Alba has also signed up to join their former Barcelona boss Tata Martino in Miami, but there remains work to do and that was clear as Cruz Azul deservedly levelled through Antuna.

The Mexicans could easily have won it as the clock wound down, but this was Messi’s night.

The 36-year-old won a free-kick deep in stoppage time and there was an air of inevitability before he sent the resulting set piece into the top left-hand corner as fireworks filled the air.

This was a huge moment for Major League Soccer and momentous night for North American football, 48 years on from Pele’s New York Cosmos bow and 16 years to the day since Beckham made his LA Galaxy debut.

Messi’s name was chanted by excited fans through a match that the hosts began in ragged fashion as Cruz Azul toyed with the hosts. Carlos Rotondi sent an early effort off the post during that early barrage.

Miami offered precious little in return but – following a break to deal with Ian Fray’s nasty-looking injury – a moment of magic lit up the game.

Robbie Robinson’s diagonal pass found Taylor high and wide on the left, with the Finland international cutting inside, making space and slamming a low right-footed shot in off the far post.

Messi was on his feet celebrating and soon gearing to come on, with the big moment eventually arriving in the 54th minute.

Benjamin Cremaschi made way as the Argentina skipper jogged on to a huge roar and took the captain’s armband. Former Barca team-mate Busquets and Josef Martinez joined him as part of an exciting triple substitutions.

There was an electric atmosphere whenever Messi touched the ball but the Mexican visitors were still making opportunities and drew level in the 65th minute.

Antuna collected the ball in a dangerous and Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender was unable to deal with his drilled strike.

Messi showed flashes of quality, skill and poise as play swung from end to end with both sides seeking a winner.

Ignacio Rivero was denied Callender and there were a few hairy moments as this helter-skelter clash continued, with Messi threaded through by Busquets only to see a shot blocked.

Martinez looked to have won it but Messi had strayed well offside before passing it and at the other end Christian Tabo was brilliantly stopped by Callender.

Play was set to end in a penalty shoot-out but Messi had other ideas.

Fouled by Carlos Salcedo, it set up the chance for an unforgettable finish and the debutant delivered a thrilling final blow.

Hristo Stoichkov is reluctant to compare Lionel Messi's arrival in MLS with that of David Beckham, as he hailed the Argentine's "spectacular" impending impact.

Messi was officially unveiled as a new Inter Miami player on Sunday, having confirmed his intention to join the MLS side as a free agent in June, following his departure from Paris Saint-Germain.

He will be joined by ex-Barcelona team-mate Sergio Busquets, while Jordi Alba could yet follow the duo to Florida.

Miami are part-owned by Beckham, who himself made the switch from Europe to MLS back in 2003, when he joined LA Galaxy from Real Madrid.

Former Barcelona star Stoichkov, who also spent time in MLS with Chicago Fire and D.C. United, does not believe the two transfers can be compared, however.

He told Stats Perform: "They cannot be compared. I never liked doing it, because those are different times.

"Since 1996, when players began to arrive [in MLS], like Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama, Lothar Matthaus, later Jorge Campos, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and many Mexicans like Pavel Pardo.

"Then came [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, David Villa and David Beckham.

"But they are all different, I don't like to compare because each one lived their moment.

"It was incredible that despite the rain there were 25 thousand people waiting to see that moment, the arrival of Leo Messi and Sergio Busquets and [it is incredible] that we are going to see them playing in Florida."

Stoichkov is sure Messi will have a huge impact in MLS.

"It's a big thing," he added. "Since I played in MLS, it has always grown and moved forward.

"Don Garber has done an excellent job since 1999 when he became the commissioner of MLS and he continues to give everything to this great league.

"I remember when I was unveiled in 2000, with Matthaus, and it was amazing that we came from Europe and many years later players continue to arrive.

"Before it had been [Johan] Cruyff, [Franz] Beckenbauer, George Best, Pele and from there MLS began to grow."

While Miami are struggling in MLS this season, the city itself has enjoyed a fine year from a sporting perspective, with the Miami Heat making the NBA Finals and the Florida Panthers reaching the Stanley Cup Finals.

"Before, Miami was a tourist city and everyone wanted to come and see it, but that [sporting recognition] is more the case now," Stoichkov continued.

"I believe that with the arrival of Messi, Busquets, Jordi Alba and other important players, this city will be much more recognised around the world.

"This is a path that has been thought through a lot and I am very grateful for the efforts of Beckham and [Miami managing owner] Jorge Mas, who have promoted this project for Inter Miami.

"Many people who have come on vacation will now return to see if they can find Messi in a restaurant, in a supermarket or having a coffee.

"I have known Leo for a long time, since he was 12 or 13 years old and I was at Barcelona, and nothing has changed.

"He continues to be humble, affectionate and has returned that affection to children by taking photos and signing autographs. This adds a lot to MLS and Inter Miami.

"The impact will be spectacular, just by seeing that the tickets for the games where Messi will play are already sold out. This is because a legend has come, someone who has won everything in his sports career.

"Despite all this, the most important thing is his humility."

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