FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A South Florida-style party erupted Friday night as Lionel Messi triumphantly presented his latest Ballon d’Or award – the eighth in his legendary career – to Inter Miami CF fans at DRV PNK Stadium.

Much like when Messi was introduced to the club back on July 16, Inter Miami managing owner Jorge Mas, joined by his brother and club co-owner Jose Mas and MLS Commissioner Don Garber, welcomed the superstar to the center of the field.

“To our fans, to our beloved city, tonight is a night of celebration,” said Mas. “122 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.”

As Messi walked down the golden carpet laid out in front of him, he lifted his world-record Ballon d’Or award towards the crowd. Soon after, when it was Messi’s turn to speak, he promised more titles for the Herons.

“I had no doubts we were going to have fun, we were going to enjoy,” said Messi. “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.”

The 36-year-old, who soon joins Argentina to continue World Cup Qualifying in South America, played the entirety of an ensuing friendly match to commemorate “Noche d’Or,” which ended in a 2-1 loss against New York City FC.

Messi had the opportunity to draw the Herons level with the last play: a free kick dangerously close to the New York City box. It felt like another Hollywood moment was about to happen, similar to his game-winning strike against Cruz Azul in his Inter Miami debut or the game-tying golazo he scored against FC Dallas a few days later. This time, however, it was not to be and the last-gasp effort sailed over the bar.

“Every time we compete, even when it’s a friendly, losing always causes anger,” said Inter Miami head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino postgame. “And we tried until the last play. We didn’t just come here to add 90 minutes to the party… we wanted to play well and win.”

Facundo Farías, who joined Inter Miami shortly after Messi arrived in MLS, admitted that losing the exhibition put a damper on the celebrations.

“Leo always wants to compete. I think it was a game for us to show him what he represents to the group and like he said when he spoke [to the fans], he wants to win always,” said Farías, called up to Argentina’s U-23s this month.

“His desire to win is contagious and when we lose, or when the results are not what we want them to be, we all get upset.”

Still, there are plenty of reasons to feel good about the evening. Messi went the distance after three weeks of inactivity since Miami’s elimination from contention in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. It’s especially good news for Argentina as they’ll face tough competition in World Cup Qualifying, first hosting Uruguay next Thursday and then visiting Brazil on Nov. 21.

“He looked good, he was very involved, particularly in the first 30 minutes,” said Martino of his superstar. “He played the 90 minutes. He wanted to be there and he kept trying until the very end.”

As the Ballon d’Or celebrations wind down and Messi’s attention shifts towards a busy 2024 season that includes participation in multiple competitions with Inter Miami – Concacaf Champions Cup and a Leagues Cup title defense, among others – plus Copa América with Argentina next summer, those who know him best believe he will remain on top for a long time still.

“He had two not-so-great years in Paris, where he still showed he’s the best,” IMCF defender Jordi Alba said to MLS Season Pass postgame. “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.”