Lionel Messi’s play has been ‘epic’ so far, his humility has been equally impressive | Opinion

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For years, just about every time I ran into Jorge Mas, he talked about the possibility of bringing Lionel Messi to Inter Miami. It always seemed a far-fetched dream to this jaded sportswriter who had lived through countless well-intentioned South Florida soccer projects over the past quarter century.

Why would Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, the World Cup champion, the Argentine icon, come to Major League Soccer to play for a fledgling Inter Miami team that holds its games in a temporary stadium?

It made little sense.

Then, on April 8, during halftime of Inter Miami’s game against FC Dallas, I ran into Mas, the passionate team owner, on the DRV PNK Stadium field and he said something that made me start to believe. Maybe not believe, but at least entertain the thought that this might happen.

The University of Miami men’s and women’s basketball teams were being honored by Inter Miami for their historic March Madness runs, and I was on the field to capture some photos. I asked Mas how things were going, as his team had lost four games in a row, and he replied: “Michelle, it’s going to be an epic summer.”

“Epic?” I asked, wearing a skeptical grin.

“Epic!” Mas said, emphatically. Then he added, “Epic! Mark my words.”

That game ended in a 1-0 loss. Miami’s losing skid stretched to five games. A chorus of boos rained down on the team as players and then-coach Phil Neville trudged dejectedly toward the tunnel.

Fast forward four-and-a-half months to Aug. 19. I am in Nashville, in the bowels of Geodis Park stadium. Messi and his teammates are still out on the field celebrating their dramatic victory in the Leagues Cup final, a game that ended with an 11-round penalty kick shootout. The pink-clad Miami players are clutching, kissing and hoisting the trophy, the first in club history.

They then surprised new coach Tata Martino with a champagne shower during his news conference.

Mas and co-owner David Beckham were in the tunnel, outside the locker room, and wandered over to the gathering of reporters to share their thoughts. Beckham was near tears after his nine-year journey to get this team where it is today. Mas was giddy.

“To see this tonight is crazy,” Mas said. “This is for the city of Miami, for our fans after so many years of sacrifice… to see Lionel with that smile, seeing how all the guys are playing, I anticipate this will be the first of many trophies. It’s a spectacular night and an indication of all the work we put into it. When the game ended 1-1 in regulation, David and I looked at each other and I said, `Nothing has come easy for us.’”

As the media members walked away, Mas stepped toward me, smiled, and said one word as he pumped his fist: “Epic.”

Epic, indeed.

Not only did Messi defy all odds and decide to join Inter Miami, his former FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba signed and are also along for the ride. The trio helped form one of the greatest club teams in history and in just one month their field vision, skill and experience have elevated the team with the worst record in MLS into perhaps the best team in the league.

Inter Miami had five wins and 22 goals in 22 games before Messi’s arrival. The team has seven wins and 22 goals in seven games since he joined the team. And a trophy. Messi has scored 10 goals in his first seven games, and each one seems more spectacular than the last.

Equally impressive, maybe more, has been Messi’s humility and leadership as he adapts to this new stage of his career.

A simple postgame gesture Saturday night spoke volumes as to who Messi is as a person. As players made their way to the stage for the trophy presentation, Messi took off his captain’s armband and sought out DeAndre Yedlin, insisting he wear it. “No, no, no, no, no,” Yedlin said, smiling. Messi put the band on Yedlin’s left arm and the two players lifted the trophy together.

It was a beautiful moment.

Yedlin was the captain before Messi arrived. The U.S. national team defender took on a leadership role when he joined Inter Miami in 2022, even though midfielder Gregore wore the captain’s armband. His influence was undeniable, as teammates began joining him in meditation sessions and barefoot post-practice “grounding” walks around the field. He also persuaded Neville to let players show off their fashion sense before games rather than show up in team gear.

When Gregore sustained a serious foot injury early this season, Yedlin assumed the official role of captain. When Messi showed up, Yedlin gave the armband to the Argentine legend.

Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender was touched by Messi’s gesture Saturday night.

“He recognizes what this team has been through even prior to him coming here,” Callender said. “He knows there have been different leaders who have stepped up and DeAndre is definitely serving as one of our leaders throughout the season. So, for him to recognize that is huge. It shows you that he is humble. He respects everyone on the team. For him to do that shows what kind of teammate he is.”

Messi was equally humble, disarming and generous during a five-minute interview he granted the Miami Herald last Thursday, following his first news conference since joining the team. I wasn’t sure what to expect from an athlete with 483 million Instagram followers and an estimated net worth of $600 million, a guy who clearly does not need any more publicity.

He could not have been nicer. I asked him about his Marvel goal celebrations, postgame jersey swaps, Miami traffic, Gonzalo Higuain, and South Florida’s Latin American flavor. He smiled throughout the interview, shook my hand and those of our photographers and told us it was a pleasure meeting us.

Later that day, when the video of that interview was posted online, it finally hit me. Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time, the World Cup champion, the Argentine icon, came to Major League Soccer to play for a fledgling Inter Miami team that holds its games in a temporary stadium.

That really happened. It was not a mirage. I have the handshake to prove it.

Epic, indeed.