Lionel Messi skips Atlanta. What a letdown for fans

Inter Miami's Argentine forward Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team's third goal during the round of 32 Leagues Cup football match between Inter Miami CF and Orlando City SC at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Aug. 2, 2023. (Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Inter Miami's Argentine forward Lionel Messi celebrates scoring his team's third goal during the round of 32 Leagues Cup football match between Inter Miami CF and Orlando City SC at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Aug. 2, 2023. (Giorgio Viera/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Imagine splurging on Taylor Swift or Beyoncé tickets only to learn the night before the lead performer wouldn’t make it, citing a need for rest.

A soccer game involves two teams and a whole bunch of athletes, but there’s no doubt this one had a headliner. Lionel Messi, perhaps the most famous athlete in the world, was coming to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with Inter Miami to face Atlanta United on Saturday.

Only Swift’s and Beyoncé’s concerts in the same venue generated this much anticipation.

The problem: Word began circulating Friday night that Messi wouldn’t make the trip. When he posted himself getting pizza in Miami on his Instagram that evening, it became increasingly clear the reports were accurate.

When Inter Miami took the field – to boos, of course – its mega star was nowhere to be found. He missed Miami’s most recent match because of international duty with Argentina, and with six games awaiting in under three weeks, Miami took this opportunity to rest the 36-year-old for its stretch run. He also had been banged up, which might’ve played a role.

Regardless of the reasoning, it was a brutal blow to fans who paid a premium thinking they would see a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Atlanta United didn’t need any extra oomph to sell tickets – it’s led MLS in attendance every year of its existence and is nationally renowned for its crowds – but this was bigger than a simple match.

There’s no athlete in our country who matches Messi’s international appeal. Only Cristiano Ronaldo compares worldwide – they’re the two most followed athletes on Instagram, for instance, and their popularity resonates in every country.

This was a missed opportunity to showcase Messi in MLS’s grandest stadium. It was a missed opportunity for him to play in front of the largest crowd he’ll see in America (71,635).

“It’s not a matter of a disappointment for me,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “I think that fans, in time, will have to decide what games to go to and put on their calendar. The player could have had an injury that he suffered earlier in the season and not been able to play. The player being held out for rest is something that I, as the commissioner of the league – if that’s in his best interest from a health and safety perspective – I’m going to support it.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “Of course, everybody loves the story of Messi. He’s a phenomenal player. People wanted to see him, but you know, if he’s not out there, they’ll still put on a great event and have a good time. Hopefully the fans are still excited to see Atlanta United play Miami without Messi.”

Sure, Saturday wasn’t a total bust. There was a press conference announcing Atlanta as the new home for the U.S. Soccer Federation’s headquarters, which was announced before the game to fan applause. About 42 minutes before the match, Mercedes-Benz Stadium had a tribute to two beloved former Five Stripes, manager Gerardo Martino and striker Josef Martinez, who returned to Atlanta in the same roles for Miami.

Yet still, the day was a disappointment because this show lacked its central character. Messi wasn’t even present to jog on the field pregame or wave to the audience. Thousands who wanted snap pictures so they’d always have a memory of seeing this legendary figure in person were left with memories of just another soccer match.

These fans weren’t all local, either.

“We were pretty upset that we bought the tickets and spent the time to come down here for the weekend,” said Donna, who wouldn’t divulge her last name but who came down with her family from Buffalo to see her favorite player and visit her sister, who lives here. “When I saw all the people in Messi gear, a third of the people have Messi shirts on – I mean, he couldn’t just come to the game to sit on the bench?”

Donna was decked out in Miami pink, added: “Supposedly he was injured and needed the rest, but we spent money on the tickets. We flew down hoping to see him. It would’ve been a really major thing just to see him.”

Buffalo is a long trip, but how about coming from another country? Friends Enrique Vazquez and James Rosario, both wearing Messi shirts, were extremely disappointed Messi didn’t play. The latter came from Mexico just for the match. The two, both Mexico natives, even admitted they rooted for Argentina against their home country in the World Cup because they’re such big Messi enthusiasts.

“We were refreshing Twitter (all Friday night),” Vazquez said. “The reason they gave, to me, is not the real one. I think it’s because of the turf (which Messi has denied being an issue).”

Rosario added: “I’m angry with Tata Martino because I think it’s his decision, not Messi. But I don’t know. I think this is one of the hardest games they have left, too.”

It nonetheless was a lively crowd that was treated to a thriller. Atlanta United fans enjoyed a three-goal outburst late in the first half. Tempers even flared in the second half. It turns out Miami could’ve used Messi – Atlanta United won 5-2. “It was so good for us,” said Atlanta United midfielder Saba Lobzhanidze, stating the obvious of Messi missing the match: “It was so good for us.”

But it wasn’t for many others in the building, even those rooting for the home team. And no matter how entertaining the match, for many, nothing could’ve made it good enough without Messi taking the stage.