FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sometimes in this game of ours, an ending is so perfectly written it defies belief. There is no point in analyzing or trying to bring logic to it. All you can do is marvel at the magic, thank the football gods that you were there to witness it and, most importantly, offer gratitude to the magician who made it happen.
"It was like a movie that will play on repeat forever," said Inter Miami CF coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino after watching Lionel Messi's latest amazing feat. "It's almost like it was written ... [Messi] is always there to write these stories."
The Argentine manager reacted the same way the rest of us did when Messi struck an incredulous stoppage time free-kick winner to seal a 2-1 win over Liga MX side Cruz Azul on Friday in group stage action of the Leagues Cup, which sent the crowd at DRV PNK Stadium into a electric sense of joy.
But if we treat this moment like a movie, as Martino rightly points out, then this story first needs a setting and an atmosphere that led to this almost inconceivable finale.
So let's begin with the scene.
Under a clear, densely humid sky, a capacity crowd of 20,000 clad in pink and black danced, banged drums and chanted the only name they had eagerly been waiting for. The only name that was on the back of their shirts. The only name that could cause such excitement.
The only name that mattered to them. Lionel Messi.
They weren't the only ones. Celebrities and superstars were also present, hoping to be inspired. Names like LeBron James and Serena Williams, Kim Kardashian and Marc Anthony -- they all sat in the VIP suites, which in true Miami spirit, are literally meters away from the players.
Latina artist Becky G sang the national anthem as fireworks lit up the sky before kickoff. Oh, did I mention there were massive helicopters circling the arena too?
The stadium's DJ -- knowing the audience -- played Bad Bunny, Regaton and Latin trap music throughout as Spanish and English blended throughout the evening. But in the end, especially in the first half, nothing else mattered aside from Messi.
The crowd wanted magic. They wanted La Pulga. As soon as the game started, the chants erupted, "Messi, Messi, Messi..." and Leo just sat on the bench, smiling at his wife Antonela Roccuzzo and their three children.
He hugged LeBron, greeted friends and loved ones, and enjoyed every single second. This was a happy Leo; a relaxed Leo. Not because he wasn't taking it seriously, but because he was embracing his new reality.
The first half came and went. Those first 45 minutes might as well have been another night because, really, the pivotal moment came shortly after the start of the second half. As Messi and the bench began to warm up, the crowd got up from their seats knowing the time was coming. The chants started again.
Lionel Messi enters onto the pitch for the first time in a game as a member of Inter Miami.
Then, in the 55th minute, the story evolved into the next chapter. Messi entered the pitch and the atmosphere inside the ground completely changed. The energy became almost existential. Not a single person stayed in their seat as his name once again echoed throughout the ground. This was a historic moment as Messi -- probably without realizing it -- had just changed the landscape of American soccer culture in one substitution.
There he was, standing 5-foot-7 tall, but he might as well have been a giant. He stepped onto the pitch and the entire state of Florida could have heard the chants.
As the minutes continued and both teams looked for an equalizer, Messi veered upfront with his teammate Josef Martinez (both are building quite a friendship on and off the pitch) venturing across the front line whenever he felt like it.
Messi -- used to the pressure of playing for Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina -- was probably the most relaxed person inside the stadium. The thing about being 36 years old is that he's now the master of his own tempo.
In a game, he's his own orchestrator. The first few steps on the pitch begin with a walk, a casual stroll, surveying the rhythm of the game as he parades between opponents ... and then, as soon as he receives the ball, the speed dramatically changes.
There was one particular instance when Messi received the ball and, without blinking, bulldozed toward the final third, evading tackles before feeding a beautiful ball to Martinez.
Everyone -- including the other players -- knew this was a different game. Messi continued to play his own.
Drums played in the background and the entire fanbase stomped its feet on the metal floor every time he did anything. A fan wearing the mask of a goat appeared on camera and everyone cheered. It was clear: It wasn't just a match, it was a celebration.
The offside calls in the 86th and 88th minute, when Messi received the ball and fed Martinez once again, and vice versa, were a tease -- but also a preface to what was to come. Fans weren't anxious, but they were hoping that Messi would hopefully give them one piece of magic.
And because this is a movie, it happened.
The thing about Messi's free kicks is that they are predictably unpredictable. You know what's coming, you just don't know how to stop it. There is a power and precision that only Messi can achieve and as soon as the ball went in, the stadium erupted.
Lionel Messi bends in a free kick in stoppage time to win it late for Inter Miami.
I actually took a breath and didn't believe it went in until seeing the reaction from those around me. Messi and his teammates ran to the corner and, right after, the World Cup champion went to hug his sons. Serena Williams was in disbelief; David Beckham, co-owner of the club and someone also known for spectacular free kicks during his playing career, started to tear up.
This wasn't the arrival of Messi, this was his coronation.
"I knew it was the last chance," Messi said of his goal after the game. "I just tried like I always do and fortunately the goalkeeper couldn't get the ball."
Miami fans will hope this Leagues Cup win will turn the fortunes of a club that is in last place of the MLS regular-season standings.
"It is important for this team to get wins because we are not in a good position in [MLS]," Messi added. "I know this is another tournament but it will help our morale."
Messi scores a ridiculous winner, takes photos with Kim Kardashian's kid, hugs David Beckham. Leaves. Proper Miami ending lol pic.twitter.com/n5T2giPgfM— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) July 22, 2023
Hours after the game, fans circulated the area, still chanting "Messi, Messi, Messi." Car horns blared outside the parking lots. One fan told me he hopes Messi stays here forever. As far as we're concerned, tonight's memory is good enough for now.