Lionel Messi held the Ballon d'Or over his head as fireworks lit up the sky to bring a pregame ceremony to a close. And with that, Inter Miami CF got to celebrate the game's greatest player one more time in 2023.
Messi was on the field for his Major League Soccer club on Friday night for a friendly against New York City FC, a match put together to commemorate his eighth time winning the Ballon d'Or -- presented annually to the game's top player -- at a black-tie ceremony in Paris last month. No other player has won that award more than five times.
Messi played all the match against NYCFC but Miami lost 2-1. Talles Magno and Julián Fernández scored for New York. Miami's substitute, Robert Robinson, gave the home team its only goal with ten minutes left.
Messi -- carrying the trophy in his left hand -- walked to midfield on a gold carpet laid out across the pitch, where MLS Commissioner Don Garber was among those awaiting his arrival for a brief pregame ceremony. He embraced Garber, Inter Miami owners Jorge and Jose Mas, then hoisted the trophy as the crowd roared.
"It's beautiful to share it with you all," Messi said. "I've been here for a short time, but it seems like a long time."
Here's how big a deal the moment was: Even Garber pulled out his cell phone to take a picture of the moment.
"You, Inter Miami fans, have the best player who's ever played the game," Garber said. "The winner of his eighth Ballon d'Or, the guy who lifted as captain the Leagues Cup for your team, thank you Leo for your belief in Major League Soccer and making your club and your league a league of choice."
🗣️M E S S I 🗣️ pic.twitter.com/sQeXwFdUMO— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) November 11, 2023
It was a perfect bookend to Messi's first four months officially as part of club: Year 1 started with an on-field party and ended with another celebration with a look ahead to Year 2.
"He's the main star of this match and we want to join him celebrating his eighth Ballon d'Or," Inter Miami coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino said. "It's an opportunity also for us to compete. Even if it's a friendly it's an opportunity for the people and the fans to see Leo and his teammates on the field and say goodbye to the year."
Messi stayed on the pitch for the whole match against NYCFC but Miami lost 2-1. Talles Magno and Julián Fernández scored for New York. Miami's substitute, Robbie Robinson, gave the home team its only goal with ten minutes left.
It was a bonus chance at a farewell, at least on the home turf. Inter Miami's home schedule was completed more than three weeks ago, with Messi not playing that night - he had just gotten back from a pair of World Cup qualifiers with Argentina.
Inter Miami was supposed to play a pair of games in China earlier this month, only to see that trip fall through because of what the team called "unforeseen circumstances." When that fell through, Inter Miami settled on another option - getting NYCFC to play the exhibition. Messi has been training with the team for much of the last two weeks, arriving at the team facility the morning after getting the Ballon d'Or in Paris.
"I would like to thank all the people of Miami, not just the ones here in the stadium," Messi said. "The treatment for myself and my family ... you've made me feel at home."
Messi will likely play at least twice more in 2023 - Argentina has World Cup qualifying games against Uruguay (in Buenos Aires) on Nov. 16 and Brazil (in Rio de Janeiro) on Nov. 21.
The team will likely begin training for 2024 in January, with the MLS regular season possibly starting in late February. It will be a hectic year for Inter Miami, which won Leagues Cup -- its first-ever trophy -- shortly after Messi signed with the club this summer. The club will play in that tournament along with the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions Cup in addition to the MLS slate in 2024.
"I have no doubt...that next year will be much better," Messi said. "We will continue enjoying and try to win more titles, and I hope that you are with me."
Martino was asked this week what still drives Messi. He said the level of competition that Messi has in practice would be the best answer.
"If you saw those, you wouldn't even have to ask the question," Martino said. "You would just see right away what I mean."
There are GOAT - the oft-used acronym for Greatest Of All Time - debates in plenty of sports. Basketball has Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Golf has Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus. Men's tennis has Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Some sports make it easy: Recency biases notwithstanding, it's hard to argue against Simone Biles in gymnastics, Michael Phelps in men's swimming or Katie Ledecky in women's swimming.
Soccer might still have a debate. But eight Ballon d'Or trophies sure swing the argument Messi's way.
Of the debate, Inter Miami forward Benjamin Cremaschi said, "I believe it's over." The 18-year-old Cremashi wasn't even 2 months old when Messi scored his first official goal for Barcelona in 2005. "He's proved that for the last 18 years. I think he is the best player in the world, the best player in history. And I don't know if many people disagree. It's obviously a little bit biased, but from what I've seen, I haven't seen anyone better yet."