Lionel Messi’s 8th Ballon D’Or trophy celebrated by Inter Miami in exhibition match


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Lionel Messi held the Ballon D’Or over his head as fireworks lit up the sky to bring a pregame ceremony to a close. And with that, Inter Miami got to celebrate the game’s greatest player one more time in 2023.

Messi was on the field for his Major League Soccer club on Friday night for a friendly against New York City FC, a match put together to commemorate his eighth time winning the Ballon D’Or — presented annually to the game’s top player — at a black-tie ceremony in Paris last month. No other player has won that award more than five times.

Messi — carrying the trophy in his left hand — walked to midfield on a gold carpet laid out across the pitch, where MLS Commissioner Don Garber was among those awaiting his arrival for a brief pregame ceremony. He embraced Garber, Inter Miami owners Jorge and Jose Mas, then hoisted the trophy as the crowd roared.

“To me, it is something beautiful to share with you,” Messi said. “I’ve only been here a little while but it really feels like I’ve been here a long time.”

Here’s how big a deal the moment was: Even Garber pulled out his cell phone to take a picture of the moment.

“You, Inter Miami fans, have the best player who’s ever played the game,” Garber said. “The winner of his eighth Ballon D’Or, the guy who lifted as captain the Leagues Cup for your team, thank you Leo for your belief in Major League Soccer and making your club and your league a league of choice.”

The game was almost irrelevant: NYCFC prevailed 2-1, and Messi had a 25-yard free kick that could have tied the game in stoppage time — but it sailed high, and the final whistle blew moments later.

It was a perfect bookend to Messi’s first four months officially as part of club: Year 1 started with an on-field party and ended with another celebration with a look ahead to Year 2.

“He’s the main star of this match and we want to join him celebrating his eighth Ballon D’Or,” Inter Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said. “It’s an opportunity also for us to compete. Even if it’s a friendly it’s an opportunity for the people and the fans to see Leo and his teammates on the field and say goodbye to the year.”

It was a bonus chance at a farewell, at least on the home turf. Inter Miami’s home schedule was completed more than three weeks ago, with Messi not playing that night — he had just gotten back from a pair of World Cup qualifiers with Argentina.

Inter Miami was supposed to play a pair of games in China earlier this month, only to see that trip fall through because of what the team called “unforeseen circumstances.” When that fell through, Inter Miami settled on another option — getting NYCFC to play an exhibition between teams that missed the ongoing MLS playoffs. Messi has been training with the team for much of the last two weeks, arriving at the team facility the morning after getting the Ballon D’Or in Paris.

“I want to thank all the people of Miami, not only the ones here at the stadium but in the city in general, for the way you have treated not only me but my family these last few months,” Messi said. “You’ve shown me a lot of love and made me feel at home.”

Messi, who hadn’t played a match since Inter Miami’s MLS finale on Oct. 21, will likely play at least twice more in 2023 — Argentina has World Cup qualifying games against Uruguay (in Buenos Aires) on Nov. 16 and Brazil (in Rio de Janeiro) on Nov. 21.

The team will likely begin training for 2024 in January, with the MLS regular season possibly starting in late February. It will be a hectic year for Inter Miami, which won Leagues Cup — its first-ever trophy — shortly after Messi signed with the club this summer. The club will play in that tournament along with the U.S. Open Cup and the CONCACAF Champions Cup in addition to the MLS slate in 2024.

“As I said at the beginning, I had no doubt that we were going to have a good time, that we were going to enjoy it,” Messi said. “And today I have no doubt … that next year is going to be a lot better. We are going to continue enjoying. We are going to continue winning titles.”

Martino was asked this week what still drives Messi. He said the level of competition that Messi has in practice would be the best answer.

“If you saw those, you wouldn’t even have to ask the question,” Martino said. “You would just see right away what I mean.”

There are GOAT — the oft-used acronym for Greatest Of All Time — debates in plenty of sports. Basketball has Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Golf has Tiger Woods or Jack Nicklaus. Men’s tennis has Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic. Some sports make it easy: recency biases notwithstanding, it’s hard to argue against Simone Biles in gymnastics, Michael Phelps in men’s swimming, Katie Ledecky in women’s swimming.

Soccer might still have a debate. But eight Ballon D’Or trophies sure swing the argument Messi’s way.

“I believe it’s over,” said Inter Miami forward Benjamin Cremaschi, the 18-year-old who wasn’t even 2 months old when Messi — then a baby-faced, shaggy-haired teen himself, as opposed to the bearded, close-cropped look he has now — scored his first official goal for Barcelona in 2005. “He’s proved that for the last 18 years. I think he is the best player in the world, the best player in history. And I don’t know if many people disagree. It’s obviously a little bit biased, but from what I’ve seen, I haven’t seen anyone better yet.”


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