HARRISON, NEW JERSEY -- The conversation in the buildup to Lionel Messi's MLS debut on was dominated by numbers. The price tag for the cheapest seats soared as the New York Red Bulls' match against Inter Miami neared; the cost to see Messi reportedly ranged from $311 to the five-figure mark. The exorbitant entry fees kept rising even though the possibility that Messi would play more than a cameo appearance dwindled since the match was his third in a week. For the 26,000-plus at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, though, that second part did not matter much.
Messi mania was hard to avoid in and around Harrison, New Jersey, where the path to Red Bull Arena was lined with vendors selling unlicensed merchandise that included jerseys, scarves, flags and bucket hats emblazoned with the player's name. Music, air horns and excited chatter served as the pre-match soundtrack. Inside, multi-hyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda, rapper French Montana and soccer stars Sam Kerr and Kristie Mewis settled into their seats. It was a Messi-themed festival, an experience that follows the World Cup winner everywhere he goes but is only reserved solely for his presence.
made it to Red Bull Arena for the latest edition of Messi Mania, where I’ve already seen and heard:— Pardeep Cattry (@pcattry) August 26, 2023
- loads of merch (personal fave is the bucket hat)
-Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” in the parking lot
- the Racing Louisville team bus! (not pictured)#Messi𓃵#NWSL pic.twitter.com/qJjkzNeqUG
It also meant that, despite a game playing out on the field, just about every set of eyeballs at Red Bull Arena was on the Inter Miami bench, where Messi sat for 60 minutes. Chants of "We want Messi!" started ringing out in the fourth minute and returned throughout the hour-long wait for the player. Though a pro-Miami crowd cheered when Diego Gomez scored the game's first goal in the 37th minute, the match was a side note for an hour and truly played second fiddle when Messi began warmups around the 50th-minute mark.
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Roughly ten minutes later, the people got what they came for. Red Bull Arena has hardly ever been louder than when Messi finally entered the match, though what they eventually saw was a mostly unmemorable 30-minute shift from him -- minus the one moment they paid top dollar for.
In the 89th minute, after a ridiculous pass from Jordi Alba, Messi found a hint of space despite being crowded by several Red Bulls defenders in the box. He then sent an absolutely audacious ball to Benjamin Cremaschi on his right, somehow. Cremaschi returned the favor in quick fashion as Messi dashed towards goal, and he easily marked his MLS debut with a goal.
Perhaps the lone group of people who did not solely dedicate their attention to Messi were the Red Bulls and the home fans who audibly cheered for them despite being outnumbered. Even their narrative was defined by Messi's presence, though. Head coach Troy Lesesne said his team "didn't want to get too involved in the spectacle," but that he "loved the way they tried to combat the noise of the night, the Messi chant."
The question of whether or not the money spent and trip to Red Bull Arena was worth it was resoundingly answered, but the answer was arguably never in doubt. From the late heroics to the festivities that seem to accompany Messi everywhere he goes, the night could be summarized with a simple post-match comment from Miami head coach Tata Martino.
"Nothing he does is surprising," he said.