From her seat in Section 215 of Red Bull Arena, my wife told me there was a fan nearby literally doing a Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy” gesture in the direction of the away bench when Lionel Messi entered for Inter Miami in the 60th minute of their 2–0 win over the Red Bulls on Saturday night. I can’t imagine he was alone. If the very first commandment in the bible is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” then more than a few of the 26,000-plus fans in attendance probably had some explaining to do to the God of their monotheistic religion of choice.
Me, I’ve lived a charmed enough professional and personal life that I’ve witnessed my share of borderline religious experiences at sporting events. LeBron James in Shanghai. Serena on Ashe. Kevin Durant’s Game 5 and 7 heroics in the Nets-Bucks 2021 Eastern Semis. Chase Utley’s introduction before 40,000 Mets fans in Citi Field’s first-ever playoff game, days after breaking Ruben Tejada’s leg. The 2009 America East Men’s Basketball Championship (not a joke!). None of it was quite like my first brush with the global game’s GOAT.
I wasn’t unprepared for what Messi’s reception would be when he showed up at my office, laced up his boots, took of his warm-up pinny and got to work. The noise when he came on in the 6oth and scored in the 89th didn’t shock me. And it wasn’t what I observed either. Outside from the insurance goal (which he engineered with the sort of magic that’s earned him this adulation), truthfully there wasn’t much to see. At 36, Messi is the most sedentary outfield player on the pitch by design. Only the most devout students of the game would find something to marvel at in his late-career off-ball approach.
It was a feeling — an ethereal, spiritual fleeting moment in time that carried a weight that’s hard to describe. The person who is arguably the greatest to ever play the most ubiquitous, globally popular sport in human history, played that sport in the building I was in. He didn’t run the fastest or kick the ball the hardest or defended the stingiest. He was just Messi and he existed, playing soccer, six stories down from where I was sitting in the Red Bull Arena auxiliary press box. It’s hard to convey.
When God (or, you know, God’s ghostwriter) scribed the first of the Ten Commandments, there was no accounting for Messi. For all God’s purported omniscience, the Almighty did not foresee this 5-foot-7, 160-pound man, and the beguiling, borderline-troubling effect he would have on people. The current head of the Catholic church is Argentinian, and after being in the building for Messi’s MLS league debut, I would argue Pope Francis is only the second-most beloved spiritual leader from his own country, and that it’s not particularly close.
Call me the blasphemer, but then you’d have to have a real word with the fans in the pink or blue and white kits who found themselves down whatever their price of admission was, but up an experience they’ll likely have on their minds when it’s time to meet their One God. The Creator might call them out on what they were doing the night of August 26, 2023. They’ll tell Him it was worth it. They got to see Messi.