The magic of Messi Mania, and how I got caught in a disappearing act

Hold onto your baseball caps and football scarves, Messi Mania is sweeping across the nation. No one is immune to the magic.

Lionel Messi, Inter Miami
Lionel Messi, Inter Miami / Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

The night before I was going to see Lionel Messi play for Inter Miami in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final, I was sitting in my ex-girlfriend's mother's recliner in Delray Beach watching "America's Got Talent", a staple for her but a new tradition for me.

Only one more sleep before I was about to watch the greatest soccer player of this generation, and I could feel my nerves start to get rickety. What if he scores a goal and celebrates on my side of the stadium and we make accidental eye contact? Or *audible gasp* he winks at me? I would be seated just ten rows above the field in the lower stands. In my head, I could already imagine Messi's wide range of facial expressions. A sharp grimace of pain when he gets tackled. Brow-creasing frustration at his less-skilled teammates. His signature boyish look of playfulness. I found there was little in Florida that could distract me from the chart-topping anticipation of this moment of my life, the one I was already prepared to rank in my "Top Five Moments of My Life", below my floor seat at The Eras Tour and El Clasico in Camp Nou but likely above the time I got drunk at the Lagavulin distillery in Scotland and rode a bike into the sunset.

I felt like my organs would explode if I didn't talk to someone or take my mind off the game. So, there I was, feet outstretched on spotless leather, watching the ever-enthusiastic Terry Crews introduce the finalists for Season 18 of "America's Got Talent".

My ex-girlfriend's mom, Robin, who had graciously allowed me to stay with her for my three-day trip to Florida, pointed out how the diverse and gifted performers on-screen made her feel un-talented. I agreed. Never have I been in such awe of seemingly normal people doing incredible things. A disabled stand-up comedian used a text-to-speech app to perform self-deprecating jokes. A blind girl with a hijab played a beautiful song on the piano and showed off her equally beautiful voice (Two in one! Robin and I could hardly believe our eyes). There was also a group called Murmuration who did arm dances that mimicked the synchronicity of a flock of birds -- their act looks better than it sounds.

But no one truly blew me away until a small-statured female magician in a snazzy suit waltzed onto the stage. My only experience with magicians have been at suburban childhood birthday parties, so my expectations were fairly low. The magician, Anna DeGuzman, started her act by making easy conversation with the audience and the judges. She was young, Filipina, and she had a natural charm and openness about her, something that gave me the feeling she was honest even if she was going to pull the rug from right under my feet.

The premise of her act was this: Each of the four judges had a full deck of cards in front of them. Each judge picked whatever card they wanted -- without consulting each other, of course -- slipped it into a manila envelope, and sealed it. Each audience member, too, had an envelope with a card inside that they sealed shut upon DeGuzman's request. Then, DeGuzman brought Terry Crews on stage and had him select eight random cards from a shuffled deck without showing her. She followed up by selecting cards for herself from a separate deck, and together, in Go Fish style, they showed the audience that they held the same cards in their hands: a two of hearts, six of diamonds, nine of spades, and so on. The last card which Crews had and DeGuzman didn't was a queen of hearts. She instructed the audience to open the envelope that they sealed earlier. Lo and behold, every person had the queen of hearts. But that's not all, folks. The judges were then asked to open their envelopes, and a quick camera pan revealed they all picked the same card, too. Queen of hearts.

Line up all the cards in the order they were picked, and what do you get? A number sequence that spelled out the current time and date of the act: the 26th of September 2023 at 10:10 p.m., with the final queen of hearts referring to DeGuzman herself. She stole my heart, that's for sure. I'm not the type to vote for these kinds of things, but I immediately searched for the AGT website on my phone and gave her 10 possible votes.

Robin and I both sat jaws open at the wondrous, mesmerizing trick performed before our eyes, shaking our heads in mutual awe. It was, in one word, magic.

I could only pray for a similar reaction upon seeing Messi for the first time in his easily recognizable pink uniform. My experience at the Inter Miami game was magic, alright. It was a one-man disappearing act.

What's the opposite reaction of seeing a magician pull off an unbelievable stunt? Disappointment. And when I heard Messi would not play in the tournament final against the Houston Dynamo on September 27, I wanted to cry. How could this be happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? My long-awaited dream darkened and morphed into a gut-churning nightmare. It felt like the walls were caving in, and the castle which housed my indulgent fantasies of Messi was crumbling.

There were rumors that Messi had gotten injured in a World Cup qualifying match in early September, but this was the tournament final. A trophy was on the line. At this point, Inter Miami, who won the 2023 League Cup with Messi in August, had never lost a game in which Messi had played, and you've got to think they liked those odds going into the U.S. Open Cup finale. At the very least, Messi could come on as a substitute and play for 30 minutes or so.

Turns out, Messi didn't even suit up. He was officially ruled out of the final just an hour before game time, forcing me to make a hasty decision. Do I still attend the game, or do I eat the financial loss of hundreds of dollars? Screw it, I was already there. Might as well check out, as the youths say, "the vibes".

My mind felt disconnected from my body as I rode an Uber there. Still in shock over the news of Messi's absence, I tried to justify the experience to myself. "I'll still see Sergio Busquets, a World Cup winner. And there's DeAndre Yedlin, Robert Taylor, and Leonardo Campana. They don't need Messi. They're a great group of lads." Was delusion one of the stages of grief?

Houston Dynamo v Inter Miami CF - 2023 U.S. Open Cup Final
Houston Dynamo v Inter Miami CF - 2023 U.S. Open Cup Final / Carl Kafka/ISI Photos/USSF/GettyImages

I stepped out of the Uber into a stuffy and blanketed night lit up by throngs of pink No. 10 jerseys. Everybody had caught wind that Messi wasn't playing, but his likeness was everywhere. When I got to the merch stand, there was his name and number. When I stood in line for pizza, those five letters smirked back at me. And when I made my way to my seat, I gazed at the sea of pink across from me, a tsunami of Messi. I don't think I saw a single person wear a different name on his Inter Miami jersey.

The infectious pink-ness reminded me of my experience in Camp Nou back in 2019 when I saw Messi play in El Clasico. Prior to the game, every fan held up blue and red laminated squares of paper, creating a stadium-wide ripple effect of Barca's iconic colors, and belted the club's anthem in unison. That pre-game tradition was meant to honor a prestigious club with a centuries-long history. The Floridian pink wall, built by the fledgling fans of a David Beckham-founded team that was established just five years ago, was for a singular mortal man who won't play very long in a grueling American soccer league (Messi is reportedly already planning to leave Miami in 2025 and retire with his boyhood club in Rosario).

Camp Nou
Camp Nou / Camp Nou, photographed by Kristen Wong

Barca's famous motto is Mes que un club, or "More than just a club". If Inter Miami had one, it might be: "Just Messi".

To be fair, I expected this level of hype. Such was the natural effect of the Argentinian legend walking across the water from Paris to the humble soccer shores of Fort Lauderdale. But to actually be immersed in an atmosphere that was head-over-heels obsessed about one person? It was like The Eras Tour all over again but hosted at DRV PNK Stadium, a.k.a. the mojo dojo casa house. Inter Miami fans were ravenous about him. They devoured him in a way not too unlike the Taylor-Travis celebrity industrial complex, every one of his touches, passes, flicks, jukes, and goals eaten up on phones and posted online in split-seconds. To consume even a morsel of Messi Mania was to give into the temptation, like Edmund sheepishly accepting a Turkish Delight. Well, here was an Argentinian Delight served on a pink platter.

I may not have had as an insatiable appetite for Messi Mania, but I didn't consider myself above it, either. A few months into Messi's Inter Miami debut, I took the plunge and bought Apple's MLS season pass. Many a late weeknight were spent in my Manhattan apartment in front a TV too big for my living room watching a man too large for life. The moment I bought into the hype, when I pinched myself and said, "Okay, yeah, this is real", was during Inter Miami's U.S. Open Cup semifinal match against FC Cincinnati when Messi set up Campana's stoppage-time equalizing header.

After Inter Miami advanced on penalties, I booked a round-trip flight to Fort Lauderdale and never looked back. Fast forward to final minutes of U.S. Open Cup final when Inter Miami were down 2-0 to the Dynamo. Without their little magic man, the team had virtually no chance of making a comeback. Inter Miami would score a consolation goal in extra time but watch Houston hoist the trophy that could have been theirs.

I left the final five minutes early, only looking back once or twice to take in the preposterousness of it all. I came all this way for Messi, and I got stood up. On top of that, I had to sit through a mediocre MLS team get beaten up by a slightly less mediocre MLS team. I felt scammed. Bamboozled. Could this night be any worse?

Inter Miami is projected to make $200 million in revenue in 2024 from Messi's arrival, and a part of me believed the club purposefully withheld the truth about Messi's injury (described suspiciously as "fatigue" -- I have never heard a player suffer from that affliction in all my years of watching soccer) so that they could justify the exorbitantly expensive tickets. Another possibility is that head coach Tata Martino may not have wanted to reveal the team's roster prior to kickoff. Whatever the illusion was -- tactical or disingenuous -- it worked. The only thing Messi was playing that night were fans' heartstrings as he sat in unassuming clothes watching the game with his family in the comfort of his personal lounge box. All throughout the night, fans squirmed in their seats to get grainy zoomed-in photos of the man, the myth, the legend, the alien; this pedestrian souvenir would be worth much more than the $200 jerseys for sale at the venue. Was it worth the trip expenses of going to see a handicapped Inter Miami squad, though? Not to my checkbook, it wasn't.

In an appropriate segue back to "America's Got Talent", it turns out the magician who made the finals, Anna DeGuzman, didn't deliver the spectacular act everybody thought she did. Viewers like me who voted for her were cruelly deceived, for one of the judges, Sofia Vergara, had apparently pulled out a queen of spades, not a queen of hearts, from her envelope. She shoved it back in the envelope before anyone pointed it out, but the cameras still caught a glimpse of the moment. Vergara chose not to say anything and let DeGuzman take credit for what was a near-perfect magic trick. Now, this is not the magician's fault. She was under the impression the multi-faceted trick worked; after all, no one dissented. Maybe Vergara didn't want to draw attention to herself and be the one to spoil the festivities, yet her tight-lipped silence had serious consequences. Anna DeGuzman ended up nearly going all the way to win a million dollars and finished in second place in the competition (to a dog trainer, no less). Had her error been called out, she may not have received any votes at all and risked public ruin.

A bit dramatic for a surface-level reality TV show, no? Yet as a believer in a higher power, I think there's an invisible string tying together DeGuzman's botched magic trick and Messi's disappearing act in the Inter Miami cup final. They were two events linked by false pretenses, two heartthrobs turned into hoaxes, and they made my trip to Florida one big fat lie. Ironically, I would come to realize one important truth. Talent, no matter how pure or precious, can always be bought and sold for the right price. Sofia Vergara didn't tell the truth about DeGuzman's magic trick for the same reason Inter Miami didn't tell the whole truth about Messi's injury. Messi's act and DeGuzman's act both sell a kind of entertainment experience that consumers subscribe to, and money makes the world go 'round.

A year ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of attending an American soccer league tournament. I was more than content to sit on my high horse draped in Liverpool and Barcelona scarves watching real soccer games, none of that Bud Lite MLS retirement league crap, offense intended. (What kind of a mascot is a Heron, anyway?)

Maybe my deflating Messi-less game experience was karma for buying a Real Madrid jersey when I was younger -- my brother had already called dibs on a Barca jersey, and God forbid I chose the same as him. I loved other players from Fernando Torres to Andres Iniesta to Trent Alexander-Arnold (that last one is a bit of a love-hate relationship); to state the glaringly obvious, however, none were quite like Messi. Messi, the seven-time Ballon d'Or winner who once scored 73 goals in one season. Messi, the leading top scorer in Europe's big five leagues since 2000 (496 goals to Ronaldo's 495, Ha!). Messi, the little flea that could.

Going into the tournament game, I was ready to add another core memory to my lifelong archive of "magisterial" Messi moments, as Ray Hudson would put it. I sobbed for him when he lost out on the 2014 World Cup and back-to-back Copa America titles. I spent countless crusty-eyed mornings on the couch with my dad watching prime Barcelona Messi dominate La Liga and the Champions League. The day after Messi won the World Cup with Argentina in December of 2022, I was at my parents' home in California. The first thing I did when I woke up was run out my front door to get my local paper so I could cut out the front page; it showed Messi lifting the trophy under the headline "Messi Magic". That aged newspaper clipping hangs in my room in New York, framed. For years, I worshipped the global superstar in my own private way.

In Fort Lauderdale, people celebrated Messi much more publicly, with sketchy vendors selling bootleg Messi souvenirs and home crowds launching into ground-shaking chants of his name. This man had also become their golden god, and every time he touched grass his followers bowed down and kissed his feet.

The line between love and infatuation is a fine one, as my ex-girlfriend will tell you.

Half-joking aside, the ambiance alone in DRV PNK Stadium was worth a one-time stop, even if I had more fun playing pickleball with Robin that week in Florida. If I had to describe my experience watching Messi in the MLS with one word, it would still be: Magic. On-screen, it was the magic of seeing him weave his way through defenders with featherweight touches, of seeing him fire a free kick into the top corner, that heart-stopping thump immediately followed by a silky swoosh, of seeing him transform from a walking bystander to a dynamic and unstoppable force in front of goal. Here was a magic so treasured it needed the protection of a 200-pound bodyguard trained in MMA.

And then there's the intangible magic dust that lingers on the pitch even when he's nowhere to be found. The pre-game pyrotechnics that lit up the night sky reminded me with each thunderous boom that the man of the hour would not be here. Swarms of newly initiated fans nonetheless filled the stadium bringing jolly good cheer and revelry, and for ninety minutes and change, soccer mattered. People cared. Messi, the one-man catalyst for the modern U.S. soccer revolution, hypnotized the nation the moment he inked his contract with Inter Miami. How did he do it? How did we get to this point, the apex of soccer's lifeline in America, buying season passes and cheering on a formerly last-place MLS team? Well, a magician never reveals his tricks.

When the pink smoke clears and the fans descend the bleachers, when the curtains rise and the illusion is lifted, there he stands, Lionel Messi, the king of our hearts forever.

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