FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Fans line up outside Inter Miami's practice facility to watch Lionel Messi's car drive away after training sessions. Players from opposing teams wait after matches to get his signature or just a simple handshake. His No. 10 jersey is everywhere in South Florida.
For Messi, these are reminders that he made the right choice. He could have continued his acclaimed career with another stint in Barcelona, where he rose to stardom. He could have signed a lucrative deal to play for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia. He chose the unfamiliar — to travel stateside and play soccer in the United States, and he's glad about it.
“From the beginning, from my arrival, it’s been an impressive welcome that we’ve received,” Messi said through an interpreter. He spoke publicly Thursday for the first time since announcing on June 7 that he'd join Inter Miami of the MLS.
“Today I can tell you that I am very happy with the decision we made,” Messi said at Miami's DRV PNK Stadium in a room so full of reporters that some sat on the floor.
The 36-year-old said he's still adapting to his new surroundings. His family is in a temporary place in South Florida while they search for a permanent home. His three sons will start school soon.
He's still getting used to “hot and humid” Florida, but overall, the transition has been “much easier than expected” compared to his move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, where he played the past two years.
“Me going to Paris was neither planned nor desired," Messi said. “I did not want to leave Barcelona, and it became difficult. But it is the opposite of what is happening to me now, thanks to God.”
Since Messi's announcement, Inter Miami hired former Barcelona and Argentina national team coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino and signed former Barcelona captain Sergio Busquets and veteran defender Jordi Alba.
The club's rise since has been meteoric.
Messi has scored nine goals in six matches with his new club, which is in last place in the MLS Eastern Conference with a record of 5-14-3. Now on a six-match winning streak, Inter Miami will compete for its first title Saturday against Nashville in the Leagues Cup final.
“Ever since the competition started, we knew that we would be starting from scratch because there was a new coach with the team and other new players,” Messi said. “From the very beginning, we’ve done very well thanks to all the new teammates that are here. This was a nice opportunity to start to change and to set hard goals for us, but goals that we were prepared to achieve.”
Miami defeated Philadelphia — a top-three team in the Eastern Conference — in the semifinal round on Tuesday. Messi ripped a shot from 30 yards past three Philadelphia defenders in the 20th minute of the 4-1 victory.
In his debut on July 21, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner sent a free kick into the upper left corner of the net in the 94th minute to give Inter Miami a 2-1 win over Mexican club Cruz Azul in the Leagues Cup opener.
In his first road game, a Leagues Cup elimination match against FC Dallas, Messi's free kick again snuck past the goalkeeper into the upper corner of the net for a tying tally that led to a victory on penalty kicks.
“He’s at the stage of his career where he’s done everything that any soccer player can do in a sport as one of the greatest players, if not the greatest player to ever play the game,” Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham said last month. “So he’s still hungry. I’ve seen him on the training pitch. I know he’s still hungry.”
Following the path of some of the game’s biggest names who have come to the U.S. toward the end of their careers — Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Thierry Henry and Beckham himself — Messi has certainly vaulted American soccer onto a global stage.
He's a four-time Champions League winner with 10 La Liga titles. His 129 goals in the top club competition are second to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 140.
More than 17 years in and just a few months removed from hoisting a World Cup, Messi appears to still be at the pinnacle of his soccer powers. But for him, this stage of his career isn't about being the sport's ambassador in the U.S. or even accumulating more individual accolades.
“I simply came here to play and keep enjoying football," he said.
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