Since Lionel Messi announced in early June that he intended to make a stunning jump to Major League Soccer for the twilight of his career, he has flipped the world of his new team, Inter Miami, upside down and shined an enormous spotlight on South Florida. Considered perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time, Messi brought an unprecedented amount of attention to a team that was in only its fourth season and mired in last place.
And when Messi was fouled near the top of the penalty box in the third minute of added time in his highly anticipated debut on Friday, he had a chance to prove once again why he was worth all of this hoopla, money and adulation. As he lined up for the free kick in the waning seconds of the game, the crowd of 20,512 at DRV PNK Stadium wondered if he could author another unforgettable moment in an already storied career.
The answer: of course. With his golden left foot, Messi drilled a shot into the top left corner of the net, providing the winning difference in a 2-1 victory over Mexican team Cruz Azul that seemed surreal but also quite fitting.
“A tremendous joy to get our first victory after how we’ve been doing in the league,” Messi said in Spanish in a postgame television interview.
Teammate Kamal Miller said it best when he noted that it was “crazy how that the whole crowd expected the ball to go right there, and he put it right there.” He added later, “We all had that feeling that if anyone could pull off something of that magnitude, that’s the right man.”
This is the power of Messi. Before he agreed to come here, Inter Miami was perhaps best known for a cheating scandal in 2021. And this season, Miami had not won since May 23, a span of 11 games. But Messi, 36, has already made an instant impact on and off the field.
Messi, who led Argentina to World Cup glory in December and has claimed seven Ballons d’Or as the world’s best men’s soccer player, isn’t just an iconic athlete who has reached almost mythical proportions. He already has and likely will continue to have a substantial cultural influence on a city — and region — known as the unofficial capital of Latin America. Restaurants have changed their menus to include Messi-themed dishes. Murals and signs of Messi have popped up everywhere. Argentine culture is spreading through him.
“The magnitude of this announcement — no matter how much I’ve prepared, envisioned, dreamed — is mind-blowing,” said Jorge Mas, the Cuban American billionaire and South Florida native who is the managing owner of Inter Miami. “You’d have to live in a cave to not know that Leo Messi is an Inter Miami player, no matter where in the world.”
Look no further than the demand for tickets.
Granted, Inter Miami plays in a stadium about 30 miles north of downtown Miami that has a listed capacity of 19,000 and is a placeholder until a proposed larger venue next to Miami International Airport is expected to be completed in two years.
But the prices for many tickets to Messi’s first Inter Miami game jumped over $300 from roughly $40. As he acclimated to a new team, Messi didn’t start the game — part of a new monthlong tournament between M.L.S. and Liga MX called Leagues Cup — but it was a sellout anyway. From the beginning of the game, long before he stepped onto the field as a substitute in the 54th minute, fans had been chanting his name.
The average ticket price on the secondary market for Inter Miami’s remaining home games skyrocketed to $850 from $152, with road games seeing an even bigger jump, according to Ticket IQ.
While some fans have gotten their hands on a Messi Inter Miami jersey, the items are hard to come by online. A note on Inter Miami and M.L.S. official stores, which are run by the sports apparel retailer Fanatics, said that Adidas, the league’s official jersey supplier, would be “delivering this product in mid October.” The M.L.S. regular season ends around then. (Adidas did not respond to a request for comment.)
According to Fanatics, since Messi’s new jersey launched on Monday, Inter Miami has been its top-selling team across all sports. The company said on Thursday that it had sold more Inter Miami merchandise since Monday than in the previous seven and a half months of 2023.
“This is going to give a level of global exposure for us that we never could have achieved without a player like Messi,” M.L.S. Commissioner Don Garber said. “Whether that’s in South America or in Argentina, or in Europe because he had legendary careers in Barcelona and in France. The goal is try to capture as much of the interest in Messi as we can.”
Before Messi’s announcement, Inter Miami’s Instagram account had one million followers. The count had ballooned to nearly 11 million as of Friday, surpassing Inter Milan, the storied soccer club in Italy, and all professional sports teams in the United States save for three N.B.A. teams.
“The city has got a bit of a buzz to it now,” Inter Miami defender DeAndre Yedlin said to nearly 40 reporters gathered before a Thursday morning practice, a crowd much larger than usual. “People are really excited, which is nice to see.”
For Messi’s presentation event on Sunday — which was broadcast globally in English and Spanish on Apple TV+, M.L.S.’s first-year streaming partner — nearly 500 media members were credentialed, according to Inter Miami. And nearly 200 were approved for Messi’s first practice, with a news helicopter circling above since early that morning. Even though reporters were given access to only 15 minutes of the training session, which is common in the sport, television and radio reporters from Argentina broadcast live from their spots on the other side of the field, and then later from the parking lot.
“That’s a gift that Leo has given the sport,” said David Beckham, the former soccer star and an Inter Miami owner. “It’s about legacy for him. He’s at the stage of his career where he’s done everything that any soccer player can do in the sport.”
Even beyond the field, Messi is among the most famous humans on Earth. At the World Cup in Qatar, it was common to see not only Argentina fans wearing his jersey and singing the national team chants, but also people from Bangladesh or the Philippines. A 30-foot-tall cutout of Messi stands, for example, in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Building on its popularity in Asia, Argentina’s national soccer federation had already begun its plans to grow in the U.S. market a year and a half ago. Leandro Petersen, the A.F.A.’s chief commercial and marketing officer, said the federation has 30-year deals in place in South Florida either to build new facilities (North Bay Village) or to renovate existing ones (Hialeah) to use as training centers for its national team ahead of the 2024 Copa América tournament and the 2026 World Cup.
But now that Messi is around, Petersen said the federation is benefiting from the boost and seeing its timelines accelerate. Before, he said, it was more difficult to compete with the established American sports leagues, such as the N.F.L. or N.B.A.
“What’s happening now is that different companies that didn’t invest in soccer because it’s not the most popular sport in the United States, they’re now starting to include in their budget a part to invest in soccer,” Petersen said in Spanish.
Emi Danieluk, the brand ambassador for a local chain of Argentine steakhouses called Baires Grill, which has frequently hosted Messi, his family and his Argentine teammates, said Messi’s arrival had already given more visibility to Argentine culture, products and food. He sees more potential ripple effects of Messi’s presence.
“We have today an example of what Messi is generating in Florida, but I can assure you when he starts to travel for Inter Miami to other stadiums that have more capacity, like Atlanta United and 80,000 people, the impact he is going to have in every state is really significant,” Danieluk said. “I don’t think people realize that right now.”
Those in attendance at Friday’s game saw Messi’s substantial impact. After he and Sergio Busquets, a fellow newcomer and former teammate of Messi’s in Barcelona, entered the game, they began exposing Cruz Azul’s defense. In stoppage time, Messi drew a foul and worked his magic. He sent the crowd into a frenzy, celebrated with teammates and raced over to hug his family.
“We want to start like that, giving the victory to these people and to thank all the people here,” Messi said afterward, adding later, “I hope that we continue like this and they keep accompanying us all year.”