“MES-SI! MES-SI! MES-SI!”
The chants rang loud throughout CenturyLink Field last night. But the hero remained planted on the bench, not starting due a nagging back injury. And while things were looking good for Messi’s Argentinian squad, which had already taken a 3–0 lead over a completely overmatched Bolivian team in the final group stage match of Copa América Centenario, the outlook grew increasingly bleak for the fans. Would Argentinian manager Gerardo Martino even risk the chance of further injury for his star in a blowout? The fans’ chants kept coming throughout the first half, but Messi didn’t arrive. He might never come. Things weren’t Waiting for Godot bleak, but waiting for Messi was taking its toll.
It needs to be understood that the 45,753 fans in the stands last night weren’t here to watch two soccer teams, they came to see an icon. On Thursday, hardcore soccer fans from around the country will travel to Seattle see the Untied States play in Copa América quarterfinal. They’ll be taking a trip to watch their squad. Many people in the crowd last night were making a pilgrimage. Soccer tournaments come and go, but there are so few chances to see the man that may be the greatest player ever. Throughout the stadium, you could feel all the electricity focused on this one man. American athletes like Steph Curry are loved and revered. Messi is deified.
But as whistle concluding the first half sounded, the soccer god remained on the bench.
Never has a substation board gotten such a defining ovation.
When the fourth official raised a digital green 10 before the start of the second half, the crowd erupted. Messi had officially arrived. It may not have been a logical risk to play him in a game Argentina was so thoroughly dominating, but there’s an argument for keeping him in relative match form in a no-stress contest before Copa América’s knockout round. That said, it’s really hard not think showmanship played at least some factor in Messi seeing the field. When you’re a superstar and an arena full of people that paid to see you continually beckons, you want to answer the call.
Did Messi do anything of consequence once he subbed into the match? No. He scored no goals, notched no assists. Much of this can be attributed to the matchup and the 3–0 score. Last night’s game was one of the most lopsided sporting contests in recent memory. Argentina controlled an unreal 86 percent of the possession. Boliva had zero shots in the first half. It was like if the Seahawks decided to have a warmup preseason game against UW. The two teams frankly didn’t belong on the same field. So by the time Messi took the pitch, Argentina—which had already clinched its spot atop Group D—was kind of going through the motions at 3/4 speed. There was one play in the second half when a Bolivian forward tumbled while trying to go 1-on-5 against the Argentinian back (which was stationed at midfield), and the Argentinian players waited for him to get back up before pushing forward. Messi was never going to be in full attack mode when dropped into this context.
Did Messi’s lack of a substantive moment matter? Not at all.
It may not be reflected in the score, but Messi delivered flashes of transcendent brilliance for the crowd at the Link. In the 60th minute, Argentina was awarded a free kick near the right corner of the box. It was one of those moments when it seemed the entire stadium was holding its breath in anticipation. He ended up booting the ball about a foot too wide of the goals top left corner, but the thrill of the moment remained (1:13). He followed it up minutes later with a cheeky little dribbling exhibition along the left flank of the pitch, slowing up his defender, before blowing by him and the oncoming help defender. There was hardly even a strategic point to the play—it was pure showmanship to entertain his faithful followers (1:35).
But the moment of the night, one that fans will remember more than any of the goals, came after a whistle had blown a play dead. In the 76th minute, Messi mistimed a run into the box by a fraction of a second and was flagged for being offside. Before the players could register the ref’s whistle, Messi had the ball on the end line. After missing a dive for the ball, the Bolivian goaltender got up and trapped Messi between the end line and the rest of the field. After a quick touch, Messi nutmeged the goalie. The roar of the crowd at this clowning act was one of pure joy. No one in that stadium cared that it didn’t count.
In the grand scheme of things, these moments were meaningless. But they were enough. They were enough to allow the fans in attendance to say they saw the magical Messi and mean it. Some things are worth the wait.