Lionel Messi's 8th Ballon D'Or trophy celebrated by Inter Miami in exhibition match
Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi holds his Ballon d'Or trophy before the team's club friendly football match against New York City FC, Friday, November 10, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida (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.

“It's beautiful to share it with you all,” Messi said. “I've been here for a short time, but it seems like 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.”

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 would like to thank all the people of Miami, not just the ones here in the stadium,” Messi said. “The treatment for myself and my family ... you've made me feel at home.”

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

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