LeBron James among celebrity fans at Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami debut


Kingston Peel, 11, and his brother Wynn, 9, were woken up early Friday at their home in the Bahamas. Her mother had a surprise for her.

In just a few hours, they would be flying to South Florida to catch superstar Lionel Messi making his Major League Soccer debut with Inter Miami.

“We’re here to see Messi,” Kingston and Wynn said simultaneously. They arrived hours before Inter Miami’s game against Mexican club Cruz Azul in the League Cup at DRV PNK Stadium.

[Lionel Messi comes off bench to win Inter Miami debut on free kick]

Crowds of fans, some even from Ecuador and Messi’s native Argentina, crowded the perimeter of the stadium ahead of Messi’s debut. Some, like Kingston and Wynn, wore black and pink Inter Miami jerseys with Messi’s number 10 on the back. Others wore the 36-year-old’s Argentina shirt. Dozens lined up for crew gear. Even more people waited to have their Messi flags and jerseys captured in a photo booth.

Kim Kardashian arrived at the stadium about an hour before the game started, one of her children wearing Messi’s Inter Miami shirt.

The star of the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James, was also there, and other stars from various sports were expected.

Messi wasn’t in the starting line-up and it wasn’t clear how often he would play, but no one in attendance wanted to pass up the chance to see the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner embark on the next phase in his career.

“It’s crazy,” said season ticket holder Christian Zinn, who lives in nearby Parkland and attended the game with his son Oliver. “Usually we come half an hour before the game and that’s how it is. Not two hours before the game. We knew it was going to be crazy.”

After months of speculation, Messi signed a 2 1/2 year contract with the team last weekend. Tens of thousands of people turned out to see the team unveil Messi on Sunday night. Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said online video of the event had been viewed 3.5 billion times.

“It’s a gift Leo brought to the sport,” Beckham said. “He’s at the stage in his career where he’s done everything a footballer can do in any sport. He’s one of the greatest, if not the best, players to have ever played this game.”

Beckham, an England star who also joined MLS in 2007 after a long career in Europe, said Messi’s move has “raised the bar” for football in the United States.

“When I embarked on the journey in 2007 and started my Miami trip ten years ago, my vision was exactly what we saw the moment Leo announced it,” Beckham said. “I wanted to see that for the sport.”

Miami native Carlos Fierro, who has said he has been a Messi fan all his life, said Messi’s arrival had an impact similar to James’s signing with the Miami Heat in 2010.

“It will be very different because Messi is that type of player. He’s going to party,” Fierro said. “During the presentation we saw how loud it got. I expect everything to be loud and fun. Just typical Miami style.”

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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