Just before 9pm on Sunday, the greatest footballer of his era, and perhaps 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 up his new jersey – a pink number 10 – Lionel Messi grinned and looked up at the crowd and the fireworks.
If it felt like a dream that Messi, who won the World Cup in December as captain of Argentina and who claimed seven Golden Balls as the best player in the world, chose Inter Miami of MLS as his team for the twilight of his career, his revealing event was proof that yes, that actually happened.
“Before anything, I want to thank Miami for this reception and the kindness since I arrived in the city,” Messi said in Spanish in his first public comments after his monumental deal, which runs through the 2025 MLS season, was announced on 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 last name throughout the night at DRV PNK Stadium, 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 happened in the rain.
Choosing Miami, where he already owns property, Messi turned down an opportunity to play in Saudi Arabia, where a team 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 stay before moving to Paris-St. Germain in 2021.
Long before Messi’s time in France came to an unceremonious end this summer, Inter Miami’s owners dreamed of bringing him to South Florida. The event on Sunday, and the weeks leading up to it, showed just how much of a shake Messi has already given the franchise, the region and soccer in the United States.
“There will always be a before and after Lionel Messi,” said Jorge Mas, the Cuban-American billionaire and executive owner of Inter Miami, which played its inaugural season in 2020.
“We are recipients of the legacy of the greatest player in the world, who 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 soccer landscape in this country.”
The rain eased as Messi spoke, but torrential downpours hampered the early celebrations and flooded parts of this temporary 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 Barcelona’s Camp Nou or Paris’ Parc des Princes, but most fans put on a team or Messi kit. One shirtless fan waved a huge flag with Messi in an Argentina jersey. Argentina jerseys were the second most popular clothing choice, with some fans wearing Messi’s Barcelona shirt.
The celebration, broadcast worldwide in English and Spanish on Apple TV, the first-year streaming partner of MLS, with some errors, purposefully coincided with halftime of the Concacaf Gold Cup final, which Mexico won 1-0 against Panama.
Before Messi addressed the crowd, Mas and Beckham spoke. Beckham, an Englishman who famously signed with MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, read his prepared remarks from his cell phone, 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 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 signing of the summer, Sergio Busquets, Messi’s former teammate in Barcelona. Busquets also spoke, but briefly. The night, imperfect and all, belonged to Messi.
Not known for speaking, Messi was terse on Sunday. Wearing a white Inter Miami shirt and jeans, Messi thanked the team’s ownership group for welcoming him and his family. He said he hoped fans would continue to watch and grow with the team.
“I really want to start training and 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 pitch.
“I am very happy that I chose to come to this city with my family and choose this project,” he said. “I have no doubt that we will enjoy it and we will have fun and beautiful things will happen.”
After Messi handed over the microphone, a video played on the big screen with many celebrities, such as retired Argentine basketball star Manu Ginóbili and Miami residents Gloria and Emilio Estefan, welcoming Messi to the city and wishing him luck. Then Messi’s families and the owners joined them on stage for photos. Musical acts followed.
Afterwards, Messi signed autographs for fans in the stands. Tuesday is his first official practice with his teammates, and Friday will be his first game. This is his new home.