Monday, May 20, 2024

Messi arrives in Mexico to face Monterrey CF, but will the soccer legend play?

Lionel Messi and Major League Soccer (MLS)’s Inter Miami team arrived in Monterrey, Nuevo León, on Wednesday, and the Argentine soccer legend is expected to be on the field tonight for a pivotal match against host team, C.F. Monterrey.

USA Today called the match “the most anticipated Messi game since he joined the MLS club” last summer.

Soccer player Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi is widely considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time and Mexican fans are excited for the chance to see him in action. (Inter Miami CF/Instagram)

Indeed it is, and for many reasons.

First of all, it will be the first official game in Mexico for the soon-to-be 37-year-old. Messi, whose nickname is La Pulga (the flea), has played twice here before, but both were exhibition matches over a decade ago.

Secondly, the match will be the quarterfinals of the Champions Cup, a tournament for the best club teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean, the region governed by FIFA’s Concacaf confederation.

Miami is trailing 2-1 after the first leg of the tournament on April 3 in Florida, which puts the Monterrey Football Club, of the Liga MX league, in the driver’s seat. 

Miami must outscore Monterrey by two goals to advance in the tournament, while a one-goal win would force overtime. The Rayados therefore have the advantage, as either a tie or win by the Rayados will move the Monterrey team into the semifinals.

Messi didn’t play in Inter Miami’s first game, in Miami, due to an injured hamstring. Since then, speculation has run rampant: would he play in Mexico or not? 

Monterrey F.C. head coach Fernando Ortiz staring at the camera in a game
Monterrey C.F. coach Fernando Ortiz says he’s not worried about his team confronting the football legend, saying they have the home team advantage. (Fernando Ortiz/Instagram)

Messi has sat out four Miami games in MLS play and did not suit up for Argentina in friendlies against El Salvador and Costa Rica in March.

However, La Pulga did return to action on Saturday for an MLS game against the Colorado Rapids, entering after halftime and scoring one goal and assisting another within his first 15 minutes. He took five shots, made a sliding tackle and appeared “100-percent healthy in his first match since March 13,” USA Today noted.

Miami was a “completely different team [after] their superstar No. 10 entered the match,” wrote soccer website 90 Min.

Messi trained in full with his team on Tuesday and “will be available” on Wednesday in Monterrey, according to ESPN. Whether he starts or enters as a reserve remains to be seen.

On top of all that, Messi put himself in the middle of controversy after the last Miami-Monterrey match in the U.S. on April 3 — even though he didn’t play.

After the match, he entered the Monterrey locker room and got into a face-to-face shouting match with Rayados assistant coach Nico Sánchez, himself a former pro player in Argentina.

The source of Messi’s anger is not precisely known, although Monterrey head coach Fernando Ortiz, also an Argentine, did make some pregame comments about Miami’s decision to hold Messi out of action. Then in the game, Miami drew six yellow cards, leading to one ejection that forced Miami to finish the match with 10 players.

In a voice message leaked to Fox Sports México, Sánchez told friends that Messi “wanted to fight me” and had threatened to hit him. 

“The dwarf was possessed,” Sánchez said of Messi in the message. “He had the face of the devil.”

Sánchez has since apologized.

Monterrey C.F. assistant coach Nico Sanchez.
Monterrey F.C. Assistant Coach Nico Sánchez made headlines after his team’s last encounter with Inter Miami, after he referred to an angry Messi as a “possessed dwarf.” He later apologized. (Nícolas Sánchez/Instagram)

USA Today commented wryly on the incident: “If Messi was supposedly so enraged after a game he didn’t play, just imagine what he’s going to do on the pitch against Monterrey. “

The big game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Estadio BBVA in Monterrey and can be seen in English on FoxSports1 and in Spanish on TUDN.

Tickets for the match were snapped up quickly by Rayados season pass holders, leaving only 5,000 seats for the general public at the 51,348-capacity stadium. Those sold out in less than half an hour, with prices ranging from 1,830 (US $111) to 5,300 pesos (US $322), with a limit of two tickets per person.

In the resale market, tickets have sold for between 8,000 and 35,000 pesos, and a private box with nine seats could be had for 432,000 pesos (US $26,287). 

The madness continued on Tuesday, when the Miami club arrived at General Mariano Escobedo airport in Apodaca, Nuevo León. Hundreds of fans showed up to get a glimpse of longtime FC Barcelona star Messi, who won a World Cup with Argentina in 2022.

First, they staked out an area near the hangars, then they rushed to the terminal on a rumor that the players were headed there; however, after Miami’s landing at 11:30 a.m., the team bus left straight from an off-limits area far from public view — shutting fans out.

Forty minutes later, the bus reached the team’s hotel in Monterrey, where a sea of fans had gathered outside under a strong security presence.

As for all of the hullabaloo around Messi, Coach Ortiz said his Monterrey team isn’t worrying about the all-time great. 

“Let him worry about us,” he quipped. “We’re Monterrey. We’re at home with our people. It’s a lucky thing to be with the best in the world, to enjoy it. But we’re going to want to win.”

With reports from USA Today, Medio Tiempo, Fox Sports and Récord

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