Lionel Messi
America loves superstars. Lionel Messi showed why he's the most super of stars
Lionel Messi

America loves superstars. Lionel Messi showed why he's the most super of stars

Published Jul. 22, 2023 6:00 a.m. ET

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The pre-match hug between LeBron James and Lionel Messi was warm and genuine. The (basketball) King's smile was full of camaraderie. And the conversation – so much as you could see from afar — seemed to go along the lines of "Welcome, buddy, here's a seat at the top table of American sports."

A couple of hours later, Messi showed why he is worthy of that billing, not just with the free kick that sent the internet berserk and Inter Miami's DRV PNK Stadium literally shaking to its metal studs, but by doing it in a way that this country finds truly irresistible — with a flair for the fairytale.

In the dying seconds, with the outcome of his debut on the line, he curled in an absolute peach, the sort of thing that comes with an absurdly high level of difficulty, yet you sensed he was going to do it anyway.

Because … Messi.


[Magic! Messi comes off bench to win Miami debut]

It was like a chase-down block from LeBron in overtime, or one of Patrick Mahomes' sidearm beauties on a game-winning drive, or a Serena Williams ace to the corner of the service box on match point.

American sporting royalty is bestowed one highlight reel moment at a time. 

The United States' athletic viewership loves winners, but reserves its true reverence for those that do it with panache, and provide evidence of their brilliance with regular flashes of things that leave those watching open-mouthed, shaking their collective heads.

Lionel Messi drills a ridiculous free kick in his inaugural match with Inter Miami CF

Iconic status is not complete without the stamp of championship excellence, either, but Messi already has that, with a World Cup sealed last December, plus countless club and individual accolades.

And greatness, it very much seemed already Friday night, not only recognizes greatness, but seems to have kept a special place for the arrival of Messi.

[LeBron James among celebrity fans at Lionel Messi's Inter Miami debut]

Williams, the tennis superstar with a haul of 23 Grand Slam titles, was in attendance for Inter Miami's 2-1 victory over Cruz Azul, and reacted with delightful disbelief, screaming "whaaaaat" and punching the air in the heady moments after his walk-off, left-foot strike crashed into the net.

Mahomes, on social media, positioned the phrase "Wild man!" next to an image of a goat, or a G.O.A.T., above a video of Messi's goal. There was even more celebrity celebration where that came from. And, if Messi has his own way, there will be much more of it in the months and years to come.

America enjoyed Messi already, because soccer is the most global of all sports and has reached a position of importance in this country now that it has never had before.

Still, we are no different to any other nation in that we like it when things happen on our doorstep, and attach extra value when they do. 

Messi has now scored 700 non-penalty kick goals in his career, the most in history, but this, his first in the pink uniform of Miami, set down a marker. This didn't just feel like a step toward a brighter American soccer future, but a veritable leap.

To be clear, Argentina, no one is trying to steal Messi from you. The 36-year-old loves his homeland like nothing else, and triumphing in his national colors in Qatar last winter was undisputedly his finest moment.

Lionel Messi celebrates Argentina's win in the 2022 FIFA World Cup

Yet, if he keeps turning in show-stoppers like that, just wait and see, America is going to claim him, too. Because he's here now, in your face, doing Messi things in real time, in Major League Soccer — and here in the League Cup competition shared between MLS and Mexico's Liga MX.

It makes everything feel different. 

Inter Miami defender Kamal Miller represented Canada at the World Cup, the proudest moment of his career, but said that this night felt "even bigger."

In the minutes after the final whistle blew, with Miami co-owner David Beckham fighting back tears of happiness and the crowd still buzzing from the energy, Messi showed the other side of himself that has enamored him to millions for so long.

[How Lionel Messi's Miami arrival mirrors the Beckham Experiment]

While career-long rival Cristiano Ronaldo has often portrayed himself in an unabashedly self-centered manner, Messi has always insisted the team comes before everything, regardless of his exceptional standard.

Already, it appears, he is taking his responsibilities as Inter captain to heart. While being interviewed by MLS Español, Messi gave a tribute to young homegrown defender Ian Fray, who suffered a serious injury earlier in the game and was severely distressed before leaving the field.

"Let me dedicate this win to Ian," Messi said. "[He] was suffering in the locker room from the injury he sustained. He comes from two serious injuries, and today he has the bad luck to go through an injury again."

That's class. That's a captain. That's Messi. And that … is one heck of a way to get started.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

FOLLOW Follow your favorites to personalize your FOX Sports experience
Lionel Messi
Inter Miami CF

Lionel Messi
Get more from Lionel Messi Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more