The king came home for one last party of the 2023 season with Lionel Messi’s latest Ballon d’Or win celebrated in style at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale Friday night.
The event was billed Noche d’Or, a chance for Messi to be recognized in front of his new home fans before the match, a friendly between Inter Miami CF and New York City FC — two teams that failed to make the MLS Cup Playoffs.
With the Ballon d’Or trophy in hand, Messi walked to a podium on the field, where he was flanked by Inter Miami co-owners Jorge and Jose Mas and MLS commissioner Don Garber to address the crowd in the pregame ceremony
“Thank you for being here, for this lovely honor," Messi said in Spanish. “For me, it’s really beautiful to be able to share it with you. I’ve only been here a short time, but it feels like I’ve been here forever.”
“I want to thank all the people of Miami, not only those that are here in the stadium, but the city in general for how they’ve treated me all these months, both myself and my family,” Messi added. "They’ve shown me a lot of kindness, making me feel at home. It’s a city with lots of Latinos, which makes me feel really comfortable. We’re doing well here, so thank you very much.”
Messi’s record eighth Ballon d’Or win capped a spectacular year for the 36-year-old legend, a year that included leading Argentina to a first World Cup title since 1986, where he won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s top player and the Silver Boot as the second-highest scorer.
He returned to domestic play with Paris Saint-Germain where was voted Ligue 1 Best Foreign Player of the Season after 16 goals and 16 assists in another title-winning season for the juggernaut.
Messi then made worldwide headlines when he ended longtime speculation and announced a move to Inter Miami CF in mid-July.
“To our fans, to our beloved city, tonight is a night of celebration,” Jorge Mas said. “One hundred and twenty-two days ago, Lionel Messi, Antonela [Roccuzzo] and their family landed in this great city 200 yards from here. Lionel Messi started a new chapter in his life. But more importantly, he wrote a new chapter in the history of your Inter Miami, of your football club.”
It was a surreal start in South Florida for Messi, who came on as a substitute and scored the winner on a sensational free kick in the Herons’ Leagues Cup debut match against Mexico’s Cruz Azul.
There was no slowing down from there with Messi scoring a tournament-high nine goals, helping Inter Miami won Leagues Cup, the club’s first major trophy.
Messi promised the first trophy would not be the club’s last.
“We’ve been here a short time but we already achieved something very important, which was the first title for this club, for our club," Messi said. “It's something very important because we went for it, the club needed it. For us players, for how we were doing, it’s important for what’s to come next year. And why not the possibility of playing an important tournament?”
After the dream start in Leagues Cup, Messi’s two assists helped send Inter Miami into a second final of the season — the US Open Cup final — following a penalty kick triumph over FC Cincinnati in the semifinals on Aug. 23.
Messi came off the bench to score the insurance goal in a 2-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls on his MLS regular season debut and had a pair of assists in a 3-1 win over LAFC a week later as he tried to guide the Herons up the table and above the playoff line.
But his magical first season in Miami pink was momentarily paused due to injury, and the Herons subsequently struggled with him out of the lineup, as their playoff hopes went up in smoke after a loss to the Houston Dynamo in the US Open Cup final.
If there were grumblings about the injury slowing Messi, he went out and scored the lone goal in a World Cup qualifying win over Ecuador on Sept. 7 and struck twice in a 2-0 win over host Peru on Oct. 17.
“He had two not-so-great years in Paris, where he still showed he’s the best,” Miami defender Jordi Alba said on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. “But maybe because of this change of air here in Miami it has gone phenomenally for him and the truth is that he’s really happy, him and his family. You can see it on the field: once again he’s the best and hopefully, there are many more years to come on this path.”
Messi will now get a well-deserved break, a chance to spend the holidays with family in Barcelona before MLS preseason begins in January. If rampant rumors are true and legendary striker Luis Suarez is set to join former Barcelona teammates Messi, Alba and Sergio Busquets, Miami will surely be considered a favorite to win more silverware in 2024, beginning with the Concacaf Champions Cup, where they booked their spot via the Leagues Cup win, and perhaps ending with MLS Cup 2024.
Inter Miami lost the friendly to NYCFC, 2-1, and Messi didn’t score a goal despite 10 scoring attempts. It was the only damper on a night that celebrated Messi’s season and what the future with the Goat in Miami may bring.
"Like I said in the beginning, I had no doubts we were going to have fun, we were going to enjoy," Messi said. "And today I have no doubts, just like in the beginning, that next year will be much better. We’re going to keep on having fun, keep on winning titles. And hopefully you join us like you did all these months I’ve been here because we really need your support. It was amazing having you close.
"Like I said before, next year we have important things and we have to do it together.”