I Saw Messi
Warning: this is a story about me. But it’s indicative of why sports are important and meaningful in society. This is a story I tell to anyone who will listen, and I imagine it’s a story everyone else who was at this game will talk about forever as well.
As an American, it’s not every day you get to watch world-class football (soccer, futbol, whatever). With all due respect to MLS and US Soccer, the best players just don’t come around these parts very often. When they do come, it’s worth the effort to go see them. With that in mind, I’d like to explain why June 10, 2016 was one of the most incredible days of my life.
Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer to ever live. There, I said it. Most numbers back that up, and he passes the eye test with flying colors as well. Since debuting for Barcelona in 2004, he has scored (as of this writing) 327 goals in 364 games. Those are video game numbers. If he had an And-1 mixtape, it would be a feature-length film. Suffice to say, I think he’s pretty darn great.
So you can imagine my interest being piqued when I heard he would be playing in Chicago in the Copa America Centenario, where his Argentina squad would take on Panama. I’m from Omaha, so the 8 hour drive to the Windy City sounded reasonable for the prospect of seeing Messi play live and in person.
The only issue though was that he had been injured for most of the tournament, and only had a couple of substitute minutes to his name. As I stared at the ticket-buying website, I shuddered at the thought of going through all of this effort, only to see Messi sit on the bench and, if I was lucky, maybe come on for a short cameo at the end. Of course I would be seeing some absolute world-beaters like Gonzalo Higuaín and Angel Di Maria, but I knew I’d be crestfallen if I was stood up by Messi. Taking all of this into consideration, I took a deep breath, and bought two tickets anyway.
Two days later, my girlfriend and I were on the road up to Chicago. Upon arriving, we barely had time to drop our bags in our hotel room before we took off by foot towards Soldier Field. By my estimation, it was maybe a 3 mile walk, and it would be good to take a nice relaxing walk near the lake on a beautiful summer evening before the game.
Instead, we were sucked into a raging river of fans headed towards the stadium. Basically every demographic was represented; every age, gender, and ethnicity. Almost without fail, everyone had one thing in common: the name Messi on their shirts. The entire color spectrum was present with a decade’s worth of Barcelona jerseys, in addition to the traditional albiceleste of Argentina, all sporting Messi’s name and his number 10, the number traditionally reserved for a team’s best player.
This throng of excited fans proved one major thing: people were here to see Messi. I’m sure there were some diehard Argentina fans, and perhaps some devout Panamanians as well, but the match itself was just a subplot to the real point of intrigue… would Messi play?
We eventually made our way into the stadium and up to our third-tier seats. I bought my own Argentina shirt on the way in (they didn’t sell Messi-specific ones, the idiots), as I had recently given away my 2011–2012 Messi Barcelona away jersey. As we got to our seats, I could have sworn we were in the Argentina ultras section, as there were nothing but sky blue and white stripes as far as the eye could see with the occasional splash of darker blue and red, the typical Barcelona colors. In reality, that was pretty much how the entire stadium looked. This was the first real football match I’d ever been to, and I was absolutely buzzing.
Alas, despair was not far away. Like a wave of darkness, word started creeping through the crowd that Messi was, in fact, on the bench for the match. My heart, and likely those of the other tens of thousands of people in attendance, sank.
As the teams warmed up, the video screens did everything they could to show Messi, the site of whom provoked wild cheering and chants of “MESSI, MESSI, MESSI” from the masses.
Making peace with the likelihood that we would not get to see the full brilliance of the diminutive wizard, we settled in to watch the match. To be clear, Argentina were the runners-up at the 2014 World Cup, so this was still very good football on display. It didn’t take long for the first goal, with Nicolas Otamendi heading home to put Argentina 1–0 up in the 7th minute. Frankly, that was the only real highlight of the first half, save for the five yellow cards and one red card, given to Panama’s Anibal Godoy.
The second half started with — surprise! — another yellow card, but that was hardly the focus of the crowd as the second half kicked off. More notable were the players that were warming up as potential substitutes. And among them was one Lionel Messi. Could it be?
Suddenly, everyone in the stadium was on full alert. You could practically feel the electricity in the air. Then, in the 61st minute, he rose. And the crowd rose with him.
It would be hard to accurately describe the feeling I had as he entered the match. Some of it was relief, in that the money and time I had invested into this trip was vindicated by the mere appearance of Messi on the field. But there was also a surrealism to the whole thing. I’ve played FIFA religiously, the cover of which Messi graced annually. I had Messi indoor soccer shoes. I had a Messi jersey before I even had a favorite club. I found debatably-legal streams of Barcelona games early on weekend mornings just to watch Messi take on the likes of Malaga and Real Sociedad. I watched compilations of his best goals and assists on YouTube for hours on end. And here he was in the flesh, newly-grown beard and all, about to lead the line for one of the best teams on the planet for the next 30 minutes.
He did not disappoint.
What happened next was so utterly astounding, I can’t even believe it happened. That’s a term that’s used quite a bit, but I mean it sincerely and completely.
Seven minutes after coming on, he did this:
Everyone lost their minds. You can tell I lost mine based on my high-pitched yelling.
But if that was the appetizer, it was an Applebee’s potato skin compared to the entree, which was more of a Wagyu beef filet.
I laughed, I cried, I lost 10lbs! And then, just for good measure…
3 minutes and one Sergio Agüero goal later, it was done. We had seen a Lionel Messi hat trick in a match where we didn’t even think we’d be seeing him play at all. Again, to call it surreal would hardly do it justice. It was so quick and so absolutely perfect, no one realized it was already time to leave. A couple fans took matters into their own hands and made their way towards Messi on the field after the match, much to the chagrin of the security guards.
In the same way that we all filed into the stadium as one big, Messi-crazed crowd, the entire stadium flowed out into the streets of Chicago chanting and singing the name of our One True Savior: Lionel Messi. I imagine it was probably one of the most exciting 5–0 routs in the history of the game, and likely one of the most exciting games played in Soldier Field since the ’85 Bears.
I jokingly refer to this as a religious-esque event, similar to seeing the Pope or visiting some of the world’s holy sites. But to be entirely honest, it was a genuinely magical human event. In just under two hours, a whole stadium full of people from every different background imaginable were taken on a rollercoaster ride of emotions, from crushing disappointment and despair to unmitigated euphoria and joy. I originally wanted to sit down and write about this as soon as I got home, but it’s taken me until now to fully process the whole ordeal. It was the perfect combination of all the beautiful and insane attributes that give sports such a significant standing in our society. It may seem hyperbolic, but it was a truly transcendent experience. All thanks to a diminutive Argentinian genius.
Long live Messi.
For highlights of the game not shot by yours truly: