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 for 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 Bull Arena. Every time Messi touched the ball, seemingly every one of the 26,276 fans 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.”
Messi captivated audiences outside of the stadium as well. Around 14 miles east, in New York City, hundreds of fans watched the match and gigantic monitors in Times Square.
Miami pink, Albiceleste and FC Barcelona jerseys bathed the walk to the arena with a few Paris Saint-Germain shirts 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 looming U.S. Open Cup final in late September.
But that sadness faded.
Messi stole the show, but Miami’s win mattered. The victory was Inter’s ninth consecutive with Messi in the fold and Miami’s first regular season win in 15 weeks — a huge boost for a team scraping the bottom of the standings. The team’s 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.