FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – It was, as more than one of Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami CF colleagues said, a movie.

DRV PNK Stadium is a whole lot closer to Hollywood, Florida than the Tinseltown version. But that distinction vanished in one swing of the Argentine legend’s boot in injury time of the Herons’ jaw-dropping 2-1 Leagues Cup win over Cruz Azul to delight a starstruck, venue-record crowd of 20,512.

The man has a way of making the transcendent seem straightforward, of weaving iconic magic while barely breaking a sweat, and so it was again on his Miami debut. As dramatic as Messi’s last-second free kick was, it wasn’t exactly shocking to those who know him well, like IMCF head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino.

“A film that is constantly repeated,” said Messi’s countryman, who also managed him at FC Barcelona and the Argentina national team. “It is almost like he’s giving his all to write a new film. Obviously [some moments] have a greater or lesser degree of importance, but he is always there to write films.”

Messi’s elegant strike over the Cruz Azul wall and into the top corner past goalkeeper Andrés Gudiño is the sort he’s hit dozens, perhaps hundreds of times in his glittering career. So much so that despite the euphoria all around him, the reigning World Cup champion was low-key in the locker room afterwards.

“Everyone was kind of just like, what just happened? Like, honestly, it was an incredible moment,” Miami defender Kamal Miller told MLSsoccer.com postgame. “We all knew he had it in his locker to put the ball in the top corner there. But to actually see it done in the flesh is so different from seeing it on TV time and time again.

“Just the caliber of player – he came into the locker room and acted like nothing happened. It just shows the level of consistency. He's been doing this for so long, and the grace, and such an overall top, top-class guy. He's put it there many times, so we weren't too surprised. We knew he had it in the locker, but to pull it off with the whole crowd silent and the anticipation? It's next level.”

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David Beckham is one of the precious few players in history who can be categorized as anywhere near Messi’s scale of fame and impact in both North America and the world, and he, too, was dazzled.

“Tonight’s a dream come true for everybody in this stadium to see, and everybody in this country, to see Leo step into MLS and perform,” Miami’s co-owner told MLS Season Pass. “I don’t have many words for that.”

Herons homegrown Benja Cremaschi, an Argentinian-American who said he’s been “living a dream” since Messi joined his club, will go down in history as the player who was substituted to make way for the GOAT’s Miami debut. He admitted he was fanboying just like most of the thousands in the stands on the game-winner.

“I was on top of the chair. I was standing on top of our chairs,” said the 18-year-old with a grin. “I was like another fan. I wasn’t on our team at that moment, I was cheering for him. It's just really exciting.

“When he came in, a couple of us said, ‘he's gonna score, he's gonna score, he's gonna win the game for us.’ And that's what happened.”

Martino said he saw the storybook finish begin to materialize when Messi himself won a free kick in the heart of Zone 14 as Kevin Castaño and Carlos Salcedo – a former Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC defender – sandwiched him in pursuit of a short pass from Josef Martínez.

“Not when he scored the goal – when he received the foul there, we already began to think that the movie could be written,” said Martino, alluding to the prime set-piece zone Inter Miami radio commentator Chris Wittyngham dubbed “Messi territory.”

Was it really a foul, though?

“We know that a foul there is like a penalty [kick] for him,” said Cruz Azul forward and fellow Argentine Augusto Lotti, maintaining that La Maquina were well aware of the importance of not giving away dangerous set pieces with Messi on the pitch.

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Losing in that manner only intensified the frustrations of the Mexico City giants, whose winless start to the Liga MX season has now bled over into Leagues Cup. Cruz Azul outperformed IMCF on balance for much of the match, creating a litany of good scoring chances but failing to convert aside from Mexican international Uriel Antuna’s 65th-minute equalizer.

“How many scoring chances did we have? That's football, often unfair, but if today a team deserved to win it was mine, definitely, I have no doubt,” said their veteran manager Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, emphasizing the degree to which his team was wasteful in front of goal, thus opening the door to Messi’s late heroics. “That we weren't forceful was something else.

“Whether it was [a foul] or was not, the referee marked it and it was Messi's goal,” he added. “He is a super player, he is outstanding … and at the end of the game, with a specialty of his.”

The victory also ends a lengthy Miami winless skid that dates back to June 7, when they defeated USL Championship side Birmingham Legion to advance to the US Open Cup semifinals.

“It was pure joy, honestly,” said Cremaschi of the atmosphere in the Miami dressing room. “It was pure joy from everyone, from him, from us, to the owners, to the staff. And we're just so happy that we could win again.”

And with the circumstances of that victory, a new sense of possibility dawns in earnest. The Messi era is here, and who knows where it might soar?

“It's exciting to be a part of this project. The front office has such high hopes, they want to win right away, they want to be the best in North America,” said Miller.

“This is the place to be in North America. Everybody wants to be here.”

Messi subs on Miami - 2

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