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Perspective | ‘Messi’s not playing?’ Nope, and that’s a hazard of sports fandom.

Perspective | ‘Messi’s not playing?’ Nope, and that’s a hazard of sports fandom.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Everywhere, cotton-candy pink jerseys.

On the sidewalks that led to Half Street SW, sold by the weekend entrepreneurs shouting “Messi! Messi! Messi!” who were willing to let them go for $30 new with tags. And duplicated on body after body inside Audi Field, on the soccer fans who showed up and tried to mute any buyer’s remorse by wearing their audaciously loud shirts.

The mass of pink at D.C. United’s home match against Inter Miami symbolized what greatness looks like. The jerseys sold and worn were all for one man. But only he can pull off that color better than everyone’s favorite “Ken,” and he wasn’t on the pitch Saturday afternoon.

Lionel Messi wasn’t even in D.C. He was in South Florida — or wherever GOATs choose to roam when they suddenly have a Saturday off from work. Messi, his right leg worn out probably from carrying MLS for the past eight months, remained away while nursing a hamstring issue. Although the disappointing news that Messi would miss the match became official Friday, clearly it did not reach everyone.

I stopped Rigoberto Sosa, his young son and Sosa’s friend Fernando Benitez for an interview about not being able to witness the singular talent who might be the greatest player of all time. Accidentally, I broke the news to Sosa.

“Messi’s not playing?” Sosa responded with shock.

“No, it’s okay if Messi doesn’t play today. But I like to see [Luis] Suárez and Jordi Alba and [Sergio] Busquets,” Benitez said an hour ahead of the match before discovering that the majority of Inter Miami’s “Fantastic Four” would not be in the starting lineup either.

Sosa said he paid $800 for the three tickets. Santiago Haag, a native Argentine with his two sons in full black Inter Miami kits, told me he dropped about a thousand bucks after taxes and fees. His boys Andres and Leo — who are not named after Lionel Andrés Messi — seemed content with their pregame treats, their tongues turning blue from ice cream. They clearly were unbothered the man whose No. 10 jerseys they were wearing was nowhere to be found. But Haag tried masking his frustration with resignation.

“It is what it is,” said Haag, who has never witnessed Messi play in person.

Haag doesn’t blame the 36-year-old for not showing up. Keeping Messi healthy is understandable. The steep ticket prices, however, are not.

“He’s a little older now, so I get it that they need to take care of his legs. I don’t think that it’s about Messi. I’m more disappointed with the MLS — they should put a cap on the prices,” Haag said. “Maybe you see him, maybe you don’t, but this whole jacking up of the price … at the end of the day, they’re trying to make a buck, and it’s not about growing the game.”

This might be the worst hazard attached with being a sports fan, the one that should have come with a warning during our childhoods before any of us could dive headfirst into this lifestyle. There’s nothing quite like witnessing sports greatness in person, and that experience can be ours for the right price. However, it’s a gift, never a right.

Last month, Messi was dealing with a different injury, so he sat out an exhibition match in Hong Kong. His absence caused an international incident. Fans at the match reportedly booed and chanted “Refund!” A government official wrote on X that “Hong Kong people hate Messi … for the deliberate and calculated snub to Hong Kong” and later claimed — without evidence — Messi must have been following a “political directive” not to engage with fans. And the Global Times, a newspaper controlled by the government, editorialized how Messi’s snub granted Western media the opportunity to “smear” Hong Kong.

I highly doubt any of our D.C. Council members will rage-post about Messi’s absence. And if Messi ends up playing next weekend against the New York Red Bulls — as he did three days after the Hong Kong no-show when he stepped on the field in Japan — chances are he won’t have to post another awkward video to explain to fans why he missed the United match.

No. No one dressed like a flamingo at Audi Field appeared to be ready to revolt Saturday. There were no audible boos when Inter Miami starters took the field without Messi, Suárez or Alba. Only cheers when Suárez did enter the match in the 62nd minute. The fans missed out on Messi, but they got a pretty good consolation prize — seeing Suárez score a goal. Suárez, 37, may be past his prime, but he used to be one of the best strikers in the world, and he helped lead Inter Miami to the 3-1 win.

There’s an icky feeling in expecting — no, demanding — our sports heroes to show up and entertain us like windup toys. Still, this is the reality in which Messi lives. Because soccer is the world’s game and he is its brightest star, Messi finds himself representing many things to so many people, nations and federations.

He is the stimulus igniting America’s top men’s professional soccer league. He is the one-man regime launderer for the Saudis. He is either the pro-Palestinian advocate or pro-Israel supporter, depending on the leaning of the amateur Photoshop artist who manipulates and alters his photos. He is public enemy No. 1 (and possibly Nos. 2, 3 and 4) to Chinese state media.

And in D.C., he was missing. Somehow, the world still kept spinning.

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