HARRISON, N.J. – They came to see Lionel Messi. And even though he only played 30 minutes, the Argentinian soccer star gave everyone the show they wanted.
Inter Miami was already on its way to victory after midfielder Diego Gómez scored in the 37th minute to give Inter the 1-0 lead, but that paled in comparison to Messi’s entrance. He came off the bench in the 60th minute to a cacophony of cheers at Red Bulls Arena. Every time Messi touched the ball, seemingly every one of the 26,276 fans — a record at the arena — in attendance roared with excitement.
But when Messi sank a crafty goal in the 89th minute to secure Miami’s win, the crowd erupted in euphoric glory.
This was the build-up fans wanted. Why they paid exorbitant prices and decked themselves out with Messi gear from throughout his playing career. They wanted a glimpse of greatness – even if only for a few minutes.
“I just came for him,” 29-year-old Johny Chicaiza of Dover, New Jersey, told Yahoo Sports before the game. “To me, it is a dream to be here to see Messi play. For me, it’s everything. When he won the World Cup, we cried.”
Miami pink, Argentina blue and FC Barcelona red jerseys bathed the walk to the arena with a few Paris Saint-Germain jerseys littered throughout. But all for Messi. The only way anyone could tell this wasn’t an Inter Miami home game was by looking at the side of the stadium.
When news broke that Messi wouldn’t start the game, the “We Want Messi” chants echoed around the stadium until he began to warm up on the sidelines after halftime. Fans who Yahoo Sports spoke with were “disappointed” when they heard the news, but understood why Miami would want Messi to rest after a huge slate of games over the past month and the U.S. Open Cup final in late September.
But that sadness dissipated instantaneously when Messi came on. The score didn’t matter. The opponent didn’t matter. The location didn’t matter. This was all about Messi.
While Messi stole the show, Miami’s win mattered, too. The victory marked Inter’s ninth consecutive with Messi in the fold and Miami’s first regular season win in 15 weeks and a huge boost for a team scraping the bottom of the MLS standings. Their chances of making the playoffs remain slim, but not impossible with nine games to go and arguably the greatest soccer player in the world on their side.