After Saudi Arabia shocked Argentina 2-1 in their first match of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, chants of “Where is Messi” filled the streets and train stations in Doha. It became a popular social media trend throughout the tournament and a dig at Lionel Messi’s inability to avoid one of the most surprising upsets in World Cup history. Messi’s detractors in Qatar wore plastic masks that vaguely resembled the Inter Miami star, dancing to the repetitive “Where is Messi” canticle.
On Saturday night in Atlanta, Messi was missing again, but this time Argentina’s captain wasn’t in the building at all. Inter Miami traveled to Atlanta United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium without their star. A crowd of over 70,000 was expected. Ticket prices for the match soared from the moment Messi was reported to be signing with Miami over the summer.
At the time, the cheapest ticket for the match was $150. It was a highly anticipated matchup that would bring Messi to one of MLS’ liveliest fan bases.
Messi’s no-show on Saturday left many of those fans frustrated. It didn’t matter if they were wearing the Atlanta United red and black or a pink Messi Inter Miami kit.
“I was devastated. Really emotional,” said Bianca Mathis from Buford, Georgia. Mathis was wearing a black Inter Miami jersey. “I may be a Georgia peach but I love Messi. I found out this morning. I was really sad.”&苍产蝉辫;
The announced attendance on the night was 71,535 and the final result was a 5-2 win for Atlanta United, who took full advantage of Messi’s absence. It was largely a pro-Atlanta crowd, but there were splatters of Inter Miami pink, plus Argentina and Barcelona jerseys throughout the stadium.
Jorge Musicante, 56, was wearing the unmistakable blue and white striped Argentina home kit, which now features three stars over the Argentina federation badge thanks to Messi’s heroics in Qatar following that initial upset. Musicante is an Argentine who lives in Memphis, Tennessee.
“We drove from Memphis. It’s a five hour drive,” Musicante said, flanked by his wife. “I didn’t turn around because I wanted to spend a nice time in Atlanta. Messi’s not here but (Atlanta United and Argentina midfielder Thiago) Almada is.”&苍产蝉辫;
Musicante smiled and empathized with Messi. He didn’t fault the Argentine legend for missing the match.
“Messi needs to rest. He’s 36, almost 37,” said Musicante. “I wish he were here but unfortunately he isn’t. It’s still going to be a spectacle.”&苍产蝉辫;
Musicante then lowered the mask he had on top of his head and gleefully said, “It’s the one from the World Cup!”
Melkin Hernandez, 24, is a Honduras-born gentleman who was wearing an Inter Miami shirt. He lives in Columbus, Georgia, roughly 100 miles away from Atlanta. Just a few steps away from him was his six-year-old son, who was wearing an Argentina away kit with Messi’s name printed on the back.
“I haven’t told him that Messi isn’t here,” Herandez said. “I can’t bring myself to tell him. I haven’t told him that he won’t see Messi. He’ll realize in the game.”&苍产蝉辫;
Felipe Raldiale, 29, walked through the stadium concourse wearing a pink Messi Inter Miami jersey. He’s originally from Bogotá, Colombia but lives in Atlanta. Raldiale has gone to several Atlanta United games over the years and admitted that he wore Atlanta United gear on those other occasions. He bought three tickets to this one for $350 a piece.
“I’m a Messi fan. Today was supposed to be about Messi,” Raldiale said. “More than 70 percent of the fans here came to see Messi. It’s too bad. If Atlanta wins I’ll be happy for Atlanta. But I came today for Messi.”
On Saturday, not everyone was disappointed to miss an opportunity to see Messi. Dino Fernandez, 56, offered the most blunt response when asked to give his thoughts on the ordeal.
“I don’t care. I’m here to see Atlanta United,” Fernandez said. “I don’t care about Messi. I support Real Madrid and Liverpool. I wish that Messi had taken his game to the Premier League and showed that he could play with the big boys. I feel sorry for the people who paid a lot of money to see him. I tried to sell my ticket and obviously nobody was gonna give me what I wanted, which was hopefully enough to pay for my next year’s season tickets. So I’m here to watch the match. I’m here to watch my club.”&苍产蝉辫;
Fernando Somoza, 52, has lived in Atlanta since 2000. He has been an Atlanta United season ticket holder since the club’s first MLS season in 2017. He attended the match with a group of family members, some of whom were visiting from New Orleans. Somoza was wearing an Atlanta United kit. His out-of-town guests were excited to see Messi play in person.
“Not gonna lie, it’s disappointing that Messi chose to sandbag it for the day,” said Somoza. “But I want the win today and I want it hard. I want the points.” Somoza, like so many other Atlanta United season ticket holders, was tempted to sell his tickets in order to cover the expense for next season’s ticket package. He opted not to.
“I never put them up for sale,” Somoza said. “When my family said they were coming for the game, it’s more important about being together and watching the game than selling.”
Late on Friday night, ESPN Argentina reported that Messi would not travel to Atlanta for Saturday’s match. Social media was immediately filled with theories as to why Messi would miss such a pivotal match for Inter Miami. Was it the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field turf? Was Messi nursing a mysterious injury from international duty?
Later that night, Messi posted a video of a tomato-covered pizza from a Miami-based restaurant to his Instagram story. Inter Miami had already traveled to Atlanta. It appeared that Messi was indeed still in Miami.
??Lionel Messi on IG posts a video of Pizza from a restaurant based in Miami. Which just indicates he hasn’t travelled to Atlanta with the squad ? #WeAreTheA #Messi #InterMiamiCF #MLSpic.twitter.com/kchSzTHrTj
— Inter Miami FC Hub (@Intermiamifchub) September 16, 2023
On Friday morning, Inter Miami manager Tata Martino had told reporters in South Florida that Messi was not injured. That Messi was fine and that Martino and his staff would determine if Messi was fit enough to travel.
On Saturday morning it became clear that the reports were true. Messi was pictured in Fort Lauderdale, where he attended his eldest son Thiago’s Inter Miami academy match. Messi was pictured at the game with his sons Ciro and Mateo, whose birthday Messi had missed last week on September 11. Messi had decided to fly to Bolivia with the Argentina national team, even though he was not part of the match day squad.
Leo Messi with Mateo and Ciro at the Inter Miami Academy watching Thiago’s match
— Leo Messi ? Fan Club (@WeAreMessi) September 16, 2023
Up until Saturday, Inter Miami were unbeaten in the 12 matches since Messi’s arrival — including their previous match against Kansas City, a 3-2 win that came while Messi was still away on international duty. But seven of those matches came during the inaugural Leagues Cup, a tournament that Miami won.
While Inter Miami is still mathematically alive for an MLS playoff spot, a more realistic shot at another trophy is on the line on September 27. Inter Miami will host the Houston Dynamo in the final of the U.S. Open Cup, the oldest tournament in American soccer history.
Sitting in front of reporters after Miami’s loss on Saturday, Martino revealed that he had made the decision to rest Messi and defender Jordi Alba, who also did not travel to Atlanta, two days prior.
“They both have muscular fatigue,” Martino said. “There were risks involved and consequences if they had come to play this game. It has nothing to do with the field (turf). Absolutely not. We have to keep the day-to-day in front of us. We have hopes that we’ll make the playoffs, but we have the game on the 27th. That can make it difficult to make decisions because these are decisive games, too. The reality is that there’s a final to play. But the field had nothing to do with anything.”
Martino added that Messi and Alba will train on Sunday while the rest of their teammates will be given the day off. The 60-year-old manager said that he and his staff are in no rush to put Messi back into an Inter Miami starting XI, though.
“If he’s fit, and more importantly if he feels good, he’ll play. But if that doesn’t happen it’ll take a few more days,” said Martino.
Inter Miami’s next game is on September 20 at home against Toronto FC. Four days later they’ll travel to face rivals Orlando City, followed by the Open Cup final. It became clear that Martino will more than likely rest Messi for as long as possible in order for Messi to arrive as fresh as possible for the match against Houston.
“The final is just one game and we’re in it,” Martino said. “It’s very tempting to play for a title. Right now we have seven to eight (regular season) fixtures left. And the reality is that it’s not a guarantee that we’ll make the playoffs. We started from too far behind (in the table). It doesn’t mean we won’t go for it, but it’s true that we’re focused on the 27th.”&苍产蝉辫;
Martino’s determination that a second trophy takes precedence over Inter Miami’s playoff run is a significant admission. Messi could potentially be rested for both the Toronto and Orlando City matches, but regardless of disappointment from fans and certainly Apple, which broadcasts every MLS match, if Messi and Martino take that course of action, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
“No league commissioner can force any team or any player to do what’s not in the interest and the health and safety of the player,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told The Athletic on Saturday. “Messi has played probably more games than anybody ever expected. He came in quickly and has played in the US Open Cup. He’s played in the Leagues Cup. He’s played for his country and scored a goal against Ecuador. It’s a lot of games for a guy who has delivered in so many ways on and off the field. These are decisions that clubs have to make and commissioners will support any decision that the team makes.”&苍产蝉辫;
That rationale can be difficult to digest for fans who have already paid hefty amounts of money to see Messi in what remains of the season. Garber suggested that MLS supporters should plan accordingly if they hope to catch Messi in person while he’s in the league and still active with his national team. With a rabid crowd in Atlanta waiting for Messi, and a celebrity guest list that included renowned director Francis Ford Coppola, Garber was not let down by what was most definitely a missed opportunity for MLS to maximize another potential Messi moment.
“It’s not a matter of disappointment for me,” Garber said. “I think that fans in time will have to decide what games they’re going to go to and what to put on their calendar. The player could’ve 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.”&苍产蝉辫;
Argentine cumbia music rang out from inside the Atlanta United dressing room after the match. The win over Inter Mami was something the club desperately needed. It was a big moment for Atlanta United to show the world that perhaps they’re a sleeping giant in MLS. The club has struggled to return to where Martino first took Atlanta in 2017 and 2018.
Martino won MLS Cup in 2018, but Atlanta has since grappled with inconsistency under multiple head coaches. Although Miami’s summer acquisitions overshadowed Atlanta’s own successful transfer window under new president and chief executive officer Garth Lagerwey, as they showed on Saturday, they may finally be changing the club’s wayward path.
Atlanta signed winger Xande Silva, 26, on loan from French club Dijon, along with another winger in designated player Saba Lobjanidze, 28, from Turkish side Hatayspor. Tristan Muyumba, a creative central midfielder, joined from French second division club EA Guingamp. All three players have added much-needed experience to a young Atlanta United team.
Atlanta’s fourth goal of the night came on a high-speed counterattack. Silva, Almada, Lobjanidze and Greek striker Giorgos Giakoumakis all had touches during that transition moment, with Giakoumakis scoring to finish the play. It was Giakoumakis’ 14 goal of the season, which is tied for first with LAFC’s Denis Bouanga and Nashville’s Hany Moukhtar.
Afterwards, Almada admitted that while the win was the objective, the absence of his international teammate was certainly a factor.
“I was a bit sad because he wasn’t able to play and the fans came to see him. But I know that someday he’ll play here and the fans will be able to see him on this pitch. It would’ve been a show had Messi been here. But tonight the game was ours.”
Atlanta United manager Gonzalo Pineda said that the team would enjoy the victory. He told reporters that he had learned about Messi’s status for the match on social media, then joked about Messi’s pizza post.
Acá tienen su pizza para el viaje ??? pic.twitter.com/qwKrWTHCHt
— Atlanta United Fútbol Club (@VamosATLUTD) September 16, 2023
Pineda is in his third season with Atlanta and he still has not completely won over the club’s devoted fan base. The win over a club legend in Martino was a nice feather in Pineda’s cap, though.
“Over 70,000 fans came tonight,” Pineda said. “There was a lot of talk that they would come to see Messi. I imagine a certain percentage came to watch Messi but they weren’t disappointed with Atlanta United. Hopefully those fans continue to have confidence in us. It’s important to have those fans during the final stretch of the season.”&苍产蝉辫;
(Photo: Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)