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What to expect in Lionel Messi’s Miami debut? It’s a bit of a mystery

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MIAMI — It was the proudest moment of Lionel Messi’s young life. On Aug. 17, 2005, the 18-year-old saw his first action as a member of the Argentina senior national team.

Already the talk was all about Messi, the ridiculously talented wunderkind starting to shine at Barcelona. The scuttlebutt was that he could be a legend in the making, maybe even someone to match Diego Maradona, perhaps capable of one day also winning a World Cup for the South American nation. Spoiler alert: it would take 17 more years, but it did happen.

At Budapest’s Ferenc Puskas Stadium, Messi trotted onto the pitch in the 63rd minute of an international friendly game against Hungary, replacing Lisandro Lopez. His jersey was too big, his hair fell to his shoulders, but he was ready for action. As play restarted, Messi found some space in midfield, collected the ball, and headed for goal.

Less than two minutes later, he was leaving the field, sent off before his senior Argentina debut could even get properly underway.

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Hungarian defender Vilmos Vanczak admitted later he’d heard of Messi’s precociousness and had no desire to be made a fool of. So, as the teenager sprinted forward with the ball, Vanczak tugged aggressively at Messi’s shirt. That caused Messi to yank backward and his arm swung forcefully to the rear, connecting with Vanczak just below the Hungary player’s chin.

Referee Markus Merk was nearby and adjudged there to have been malicious intent. To say it was a poor decision is being kind to the official. But there it was, a red card, leaving a disbelieving Messi to trudge disconsolately to the sideline while his teammates remonstrated with the official.

Soon after, according to reports, he was found in tears in the locker room. “It was not like I dreamed it would be,” he told reporters. What a way to begin his international career. Let’s just say that things would get a little better from there.

Messi hasn’t made many debuts. In fact, if, as expected, he takes the field for Inter Miami against Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup on Friday, it will be only the third club he has represented at senior level. Naturally, he has played for only one senior national team, the land of his birth, which now regards him as its favorite son, perhaps ever.

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He moved to Barcelona’s youth academy at age 13 and stayed more than two decades, before switching to French power Paris St. Germain for two seasons.

The small collection of opening acts he’s had each say a little something about him, and have added to the Messi legend in different ways.

In his early years, the pressure of playing for his country was sometimes a little much for Messi. The red card against Hungary was harsh, but was still prompted by an unnecessarily rash reaction.

“I wanted it so badly,” Messi would later say. “Maybe too badly.”

Barcelona meanwhile, for all the associated pressure of the Spain’s La Liga and the club’s huge following, gave him a little more freedom. His first Barcelona senior outing in a competitive game made had come in October 2004, a Catalan derby against Espanyol.

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He played for just seven minutes and his input was restricted to mere flashes of skill, but the simple fact of how his debut came about was significant.

First-team players had already urged head coach Frank Rijkaard to promote Messi to the senior ranks based off his performances in training. Brazil icon Ronaldinho, firmly established as a legendary figure and arguably still the world’s best player, befriended Messi, anointed him as his successor, said the sky was the limit for the youngster, and urged management to give him as much playing time as possible.

Before long, Messi was not only an incumbent starter, but the creative heartbeat of the team, a position he would never relinquish until he left all those years later.

“You could see it in him,” Ronaldinho told Brazil’s Globo television channel, years later. “More than that, you could feel it.”

By the time Messi next made a move, his legend was cemented. In the summer of 2021, Barca and he parted company with the club mired in a financial crisis and limited in its capacity to offer new contracts.

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Messi headed to France to play for Paris St. Germain and team up with Kylian Mbappe. Much like as he shows up in Miami, there was nothing left for him to prove as a player, and thus his impact was watched and scrutinized in different ways.

Upon arriving in America he has been touted as the player to push Major League Soccer to a new level of international importance and to further increase the game’s growth in this country.

When he touched down in France, there were similar vibes. For all of France’s might as an international team, Ligue 1 still lags behind the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A on the spectrum of global importance.

Yet Messi’s first game for PSG was watched 2.2 million viewers in Spain, compared to the 591,000 viewers who saw Barcelona play Getafe the same night. In other words, just the kind of impact PSG, and Ligue 1, was looking for.

Messi’s performance was just a glimpse – PSG already led Reims by the final score 2-0 when he came on after 66th minutes, both thanks to Mbappe. Mbappe gave up the chance of a hat-trick to try to set up Messi for a debut goal toward the end, but the pair got in each other’s way. His most dangerous interjections came when delivering slicing passes and by the end even the Reims fans stood to applaud him.

Messi didn’t always have an easy relationship with PSG, the perception being that there were times when he wasn’t fully invested. Yet he still left having had a positive influence on French soccer, as highlighted by his dramatic entrance.

So then, what to expect on Friday? It seems likely that Messi will be restricted to a cameo from the substitutes’ bench, given that he has had limited training and competition of late. What can be guaranteed is a sellout crowd, a lot of cameras, worldwide interest and a special night in the history of MLS. Beckham was quoted in Argentina media as saying Messi might not play, though a far more positive tone has been struck in other media appearances.

“This is holy water,” Inter Miami co-owner Jorge Mas shouted, when the rain poured down at Messi’s unveiling. That might have been overdoing the hyperbole, but the point was clear, this is as big a splash as could possibly be made.

All debuts are notable in one way or another, but this is a different realm. Lionel Messi, object of the world’s attention, all eyes are on you.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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