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Inside Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami debut…a god in Southern Florida

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Amidst the fervor of Lionel Messi’s MLS debut with Inter Miami, it was funny to recall that this Leagues Cup kickoff had been set long before he had announced his intentions to come to America—and that, however small their numbers, there would be fans attending the match who had simply intended to show up to support Cruz Azul.

“When I heard they were coming I thought, Oh, I’ll just buy tickets later on,” Diana del Valle, a supporter for the Liga MX club, admitted when we chatted in the DRV PNK Stadium stands in Ft. Lauderdale. She did, albeit at a substantially higher price than anticipated: Inter Miami tickets haven’t exactly been hot ones over the club’s time in the league, the club’s middling-at-best performance and temporary stadium located well outside of the city hardly providing incentive for the city to show out. But that changed immediately upon the news of Messi’s signing. Resale tickets to the Cruz Azul faceoff were rumored to be selling for tens of thousands of dollars, with some tickets listed in the six-figure range.

For everyone in attendance, it was worth the money. Cruz Azul may be del Valle’s club, but she’s been a fan of Messi long enough to have once flown to Barcelona to see him play at the club’s legendary 100,000-capacity Camp Nou. On Friday she joined a crowd of merely 20,000 to see the greatest soccer player of all time take the pitch in a makeshift stadium with fold-out bleachers 45 minutes from Miami’s bustling center. From billion-dollar sportswear brands to hometown fans, the collective consensus seemed to be that whatever credit card charges racked up for this were next week’s problems.

The club’s loyal fanbase, however, had little to worry about. Like most MLS clubs, Inter Miami boasts a loyal and fervent band of supporter squads that show out for every game—and almost certainly had their tickets locked in long before Messi’s arrival to the States. A couple hundred fans flocked to Domino Park in Little Havana the day before the match at the height of South Beach’s midday heat and humidity. They banged drums and shouted along to the club’s signature chants and songs, almost all of which are performed in Spanish. Chris Moramarco, one of the founders of supporter squad Vice City 1896, confessed that this moment validated years spent building a community around a team that hadn’t so much as played a scrimmage. “At first people didn’t know what we were lining up to do. There was no team, no colors, no logo. But we were there,” he explained.

“We’d heard for years [Messi] might be coming but we had our doubts it was ever going to happen.” Even after seeing him in the stadium the Sunday prior for his contract signing, Moramarco admits, he didn’t think it would sink in until he took the field for the first time. In just a day’s time, the club’s faithful would finally be rewarded.

Shocks of neon pink and black, the club’s official colors, littered the streets and beaches alike as fans flocked in on relatively short notice for the match. Billboards and bus signs bearing the simple image of the GOAT in his new hot pink jersey, with MESSI spray-painted across the graphic, were littered throughout the town. Those same jerseys flew off the racks of Adidas and Inter Miami team stores across town rapidly.

Online orders caused an unprecedented surge in demand so severe Adidas now may be fulfilling backlogged sales through October. There are worse positions to be in than stocking the hottest jersey in professional sports, though, and the brand celebrated their signature athlete’s arrival in town with a bombastic oceanfront stunt involving a shipping barge, helicopters, speedboats, and yachts.

But before there was a press conference or a contract signing or even so much as an Instagram post from Inter Miami (whose follower count ballooned from 1 million to 12 million in days after it was revealed Messi would join the club), there was Publix.

Last week, GOAT was spotted in the popular Florida grocery chain–a destination for cheap beach toys, spray-on sunscreen, and the store’s signature PubSub sandwich. He was, by all accounts, largely left alone as he browsed the aisles with his family and let his kids pick out some cereal. A few selfies were taken. He did not order a PubSub.

It is as fitting a public debut as a Florida athlete could have. Miami, for all its allure as a beachfront playground, is still Florida, and if you are a Floridian you must go to Publix. And now—as unlikely as it seems—Lionel Messi is officially a Floridian.

And on Friday night, he made his debut as an MLS player. The Florida sun dove past the western skyline as fans filed into the bleachers, the option to arrive late for the 8PM kickoff not an option. Becky G performed the national anthem as LeBron, Kim Kardashian, and Serena Williams greeted the GOAT near the bench.

Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham sat pitchside with his family. Several of the most famous people in the world had congregated in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida on a Friday night for this.

It must be noted here that Inter Miami is…bad. They’re very bad. When Messi signed his contract, they were in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference. It’s not news, either—this is a section of the standings they’ve occupied since their debut.

The team frequently looked adrift in the first half of the match ahead of their new forward’s debut. The heroics of goaltender Drake Callender saved the team from disaster, keeping a 1-0 lead at the half.

And then, nine minutes into the second half, Lionel Messi took the field. He did so in a round of substitutions that included his longtime Barcelona brother Sergio Busquets, who joined Miami with Messi after nearly 500 appearances with his home club. The long-simmering tension in the crowd finally boiled over, Cruz Azul fans joining Miami’s in rapturous applause. Two minutes later Messi’s first substantial push upfield garnered the sort of crowd response usually reserved for postseason buzzer beaters.

It is hard to say if Miami became substantially better when Messi’s boots touched the pitch. What was instantly notable was the degree to which the team settled into a sense of calm. The GOAT drove towards the goal and made attempts when the moments presented themselves, but he spent much of his time on the field setting up plays for his teammates.

Given the context, it was hard not to think of Messi’s accomplishments: Four-time winner of the Champions League. Ten La Liga titles. Seven Ballon d’Or trophies, given to the best soccer player in the world every year. Three Club World Cups and seven Copa del Rey trophies, plus an Olympic gold medal. And just last summer, one spectacular World Cup win that rendered most any argument against his status as the greats of all time moot.

What’s left? Well, lifting a struggling team out of the basement in the American soccer league—and lifting that league out of its own basement in the process—would count as an accomplishment.

What he accomplishes in Miami will have ramifications throughout Major League Soccer. The club’s success is the league’s success. He no longer competes for a cup but rather creation, for a new era of football built in his shadow, if not his image (at 36 years old, he can hardly have an MLS run of the same length as his time at Barcelona). To simply win is the work of mortals. The divine are in the business of genesis.

And spectacle. With the match tied up in two minutes of stoppage time, he secured a free kick. Lionel Messi lined up behind the ball, and sent it curving toward the goal. As it did 474 times in his days at Barcelona, the ball found the back of the net. After briefly celebrating with his new teammates, he ran to the sidelines to hug his children. Stoppage time ran out. The match was over. Beckham shed a tear. Messi smiled. There is much to be done in Southern Florida. Lionel Messi is ready to get to work.

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F1 great Hamilton kept his Ferrari move so quiet even his parents didn’t know

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Formula 1 great Lewis Hamilton kept his Ferrari move so closely guarded that he didn’t even tell his parents until the day it was announced.

The British driver rocked the F1 world when it was announced on Feb. 1 he was joining the Italian manufacturer next year, despite signing a new contract with Mercedes last summer.

“I didn’t speak to anybody. I didn’t tell my parents till the day of it being announced. So, no one knew,” Hamilton told a BBC podcast. “I really wanted to do it for myself. Ultimately, I had to find out what would be the best for me.”

It then emerged that the two-year deal penned with Mercedes and announced last August was actually for one year with an option for a second year, which Hamilton did not take.

Hamilton informed Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff of his decision to leave only the day before over breakfast at Wolff’s home. They have become close friends over the years after Hamilton joined Mercedes from McLaren in 2013.

The 39-year-old Hamilton and Michael Schumacher have a record seven F1 titles each, and Hamilton is the outright leader with 103 race wins and 104 pole positions.

Hamilton has spoken in the past of the lure of racing with Ferrari, where Schumacher won five of his world titles.

“I mean, the opportunity just popped up and I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to think for a second,’” Hamilton said. “(But) I didn’t have a lot of time to think and I had to just go with my gut feeling and I decided to take the opportunity.”

Hamilton begins his last season with Mercedes on Saturday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

His last win was at the Saudi Arabian GP in the penultimate race of the 2021 campaign, where Max Verstappen won the first of his three straight titles with Red Bull.

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The nominees for 2024 Laureus Sports Awards

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Manchester City star Erling Haaland, athletics speedster Sha’Carri Richardson, and Ivory Coast football star Sébastien Haller are among the nominees for the 2024 Laureus Sports Awards.

The Laureus Sports Awards is the most prestigious honour given to sportsmen and women in recognition of an iconic season, and those shortlisted for this year’s honours have done exceptionally well in their various fields.

Football star Haaland, in contention for Sportsman of the Year, scored 52 goals in 53 games during his debut season as City completed the Treble by winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

Track star Richardson is shortlisted for the Sportswoman of the Year after an exceptional season that saw her become the world’s fastest woman by winning the 100m title at the World Championships in Budapest.

Tennis youngster Gauff made the nomination list for Breakthrough of the Year for her gallant efforts last season, highlighted by winning her first Grand Slam title at the US Open.

Also in this category is Real Madrid football star Jude Bellingham, who at age 20, has become a key player for Real Madrid following his 103m euro (£89m) move from Borussia Dortmund last summer, scoring 20 goals in 29 games this season.

Newly crowned AFCON 2023 champion Sébastien Haller is shortlisted in the Comeback of the Year category for his valiant efforts at fighting cancer and coming back to help Ivory Coast become African Champions for the third time in the country’s history.

Here’s the full list of nominees for the 2024 Laureus Sports Awards.

Sportsman of the Year

Novak Djokovic (Serbia) – tennis

Mondo Duplantis (Sweden) – athletics

Erling Haaland (Norway) – football

Noah Lyles (USA) – athletics

Lionel Messi (Argentina) – football

Max Verstappen (Netherlands) – motor racing

Sportswoman of the year

Aitana Bonmati (Spain) – football

Shericka Jackson (Jamaica) – athletics

Faith Kipyegon (Kenya) – athletics

Sha’Carri Richardson (USA) – athletics

Mikaela Shiffrin (USA) – skiing

Iga Swiatek (Poland) – tennis

Team of the year

European Ryder Cup Team – golf

Germany men – basketball

Manchester City – football

Red Bull – Formula 1

South Africa – rugby

Spain women – football

Breakthrough of the year

Jude Bellingham (GB) – football

Linda Caicedo (Colombia) – football

Coco Gauff (USA) – tennis

Qin Haiyang (China) – swimming

Josh Kerr (UK) – athletics

Salma Paralluelo (Spain) – football

Comeback of the year

Simone Biles (USA) – gymnastics

Sébastien Haller (Ivory Coast) – football

Katarina Johnson-Thompson (UK) – athletics

Siya Kolisi (South Africa) – rugby

Jamal Murray (Canada) – basketball

Marketa Vondrousova (Czech Republic) – tennis

Sportsperson of the year with a disability

Simone Barlaam (Italy) – swimming

Danylo Chufarov (Ukraine) – swimming

Diede de Groot (Netherlands) – tennis

Luca Ekler (Hungary) – athletics

Nicole Murray (New Zealand) – cycling

Markus Rehm (Germany) – athletics

Action sportsperson of the year

Rayssa Leal (Brazil) – skateboarding

Caroline Marks (USA) – surfing

Kirsten Neuschafer (South Africa) – sailing

Bethany Shriever (GB) – BMX

Filipe Toledo (Brazil) – surfing

Arisa Trew (Australia) – skateboarding

Sport for good

Bola Pra Frente (Brazil) multi-sport & employability

Dancing Grounds (USA) – dancing & social integration

Fundacion Rafa Nadal (Spain) – tennis & education

ISF Cambodia – football & education

Justice Desk Africa (South Africa) – multi-sport & human rights

Obiettivo Napoli (Italy) – multi-sport & inclusion

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South Africa boss Ellis sets sight on Super Falcons clash

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Banyana Banyana of South Africa head coach Desiree Ellis has warned her side against complacency as they bid to set up a clash with eternal rivals, Nigeria.

The Super Falcons defeated Cameroon 1-0 in Abuja on Monday to earn a place in the final round of the 2024 Olympic Games qualifiers.

The African champions will take on Tanzania in the return leg of the third round fixture on Tuesday (today).

Banyana Banyana defeated Tanzania 3-0 away in the first leg last Friday.

Jermaine Seopesenwe, Thembi Kgatlana and Hildah Magaia were on target for the reigning African champions in the game.

The reverse fixture is expected to be an easy affair for South Africa but Ellis is not ready to take anything for granted.

“We have to finish the job back home. We don’t want to become complacent. The next goal in the match could change things,” Ellis told CAFonline.

 

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