In the United States, soccer seems like it’s about to reach a saturation point. During the club season, American fans can watch more English Premier League games than can people who actually live in England. And every offseason, with the advent of preseason circuits like the International Champions Cup, the sport’s superstars tour half-full football stadiums to play half-speed friendlies. Cristiano Ronaldo? Zlatan Ibrahimovic? They’ve become staples of the American summer, taking up a place somewhere alongside hot dogs and Rob Gronkowski being photographed partying in Miami.
That’s great, but all this soccer has helped obscure something incredible: Since the beginning of the month, the best soccer player in the world (and maybe the best of all time) has been playing competitive, FIFA-approved soccer games on U.S. soil.
Coming into this summer’s Copa America, there was some debate over how seriously each team was going to take the tournament. Most notably, Brazil opted to have Neymar go to Justin Bieber’s house and play in the Olympics instead of the Copa. But then they got eliminated in the group stage and fired their coach. And when Colombia advanced to the semis with a shootout win over Peru, their players cried tears of joy.
So, yes, these guys care, and that’s the environment that Lionel Messi has stepped into. For as ridiculous as it might sound, the 28-year-old doesn’t have a universally positive approval rating back home. Most recently, former Argentine manager and superstar Diego Maradona ripped him for his lack of leadership. And despite winning everything multiple times at the club level with FC Barcelona, Messi still hasn’t won a trophy with Argentina’s senior squad. He has something at stake, he’s pissed off, and he’s in the freaking United States for this.
So far at the Copa, Messi’s appearances have been less like a proper sporting event and more like a rumored Kanye West show. You show up without any guarantees and just hope you get to see him. After a long club season at Barcelona, Messi has spent large parts of this tournament resting. In the opener against Chile on June 6 in the Bay Area, he did not play — despite the chants of thousands of disappointed fans. Against Panama in Chicago on June 10, he emerged an hour into the game and scored three goals. He played a half against Bolivia in Seattle on June 14. And after starting the quarterfinal against Venezuela over the weekend, he’ll be on the field from the start from here on out.
I sat in the stands at the Bolivia game, and it reminded me of David Letterman’s line about seeing Johnny Carson up close for the first time: It’s like looking at the five-dollar bill every day of your life, only then Abraham Lincoln suddenly starts talking to you. During pregame warm-ups, Messi did not show his face. The thousands huddled around the CenturyLink Field entrance tunnel booed or rolled their eyes even when stars like Gonzalo Higuaín or Sergio Agüero ran out onto the field. If you weren’t Messi, you were a disappointment.
When he emerged at halftime without sweats on, the Seattle crowd, in technical terms, completely lost their shit. Two people within my view were crying. People started flowing into the aisles to get a better look. And could you blame them? If you live in the United States and you don’t see Messi this summer, you have to travel out of the country and spend thousands of dollars to catch him playing when he actually cares. How often do you get to see a legend at the height of his powers? The Beatles in the 1960s, Michael Jackson in the ’80s, Jordan in the ’90s — this is Messi in 2016.
He plays like Stanley Kubrick directs: Everything seems significant, brilliant, and on-purpose. When he removes himself from the play and parks himself on the far left side of the field during an offensive possession, you find yourself wondering what brilliant move he’s about to unleash or whether he’s stretching the field in some genius ploy. He’s probably just tired or thinks this possession would be better without him, but you end up studying him frame by frame, thinking every toe movement is the greatest thing you’ve ever seen.
The fans cheered anytime the ball even approached him. They roared whenever there was a foul near the goal, raising the possibility of a Messi free kick. Everything got drenched in this mix of anticipation and expectation, and after a while, the only surprise was that this sort of emotion has been taking place in sterile NFL stadiums across the country. In Houston, my guess is the atmosphere for tonight’s Argentina-USA semifinal will be unlike anything we’ve seen from the Texans in recent years. Not every Argentina game has sold out — a function of high ticket prices and oddly poor marketing — but the crowd of 45,000-plus at the Bolivia match made it sound like there were twice that many Messi fanatics in the stands.
Look, there really aren’t many reasons to attend live sports events anymore. With high-definition TV, you’ll always get a better view from your couch, and with a DVR, you can control your own replays. RedZone is more fun than sitting in the MetLife Stadium parking lot for three hours. And even if you watched Game 7 of the NBA Finals at home, it was still pretty damn memorable.
You don’t need to witness anything — except for this. Watching Argentina’s games on TV make the tournament no different than if they were taking place in South America. But seeing Messi try to reposition his legacy in person is once-in-a-lifetime stuff for American soccer fans. And if it is within driving distance and you can afford a ticket, get in your car and go.