HomeSportsAfter Messi's withdrawal, Atlanta fans are trying to make the best of...

After Messi’s withdrawal, Atlanta fans are trying to make the best of a nasty surprise

Atlanta United players celebrate after scoring a goal as Inter Miami’s Sergio Busquets reacts during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

ATLANTA – The city of Atlanta has suffered more than its share of bitter disappointments in sports, but at least most of them occurred during the game. One of the most anticipated regular-season events in the city’s history — a Saturday night visit by Lionel Messi and Inter Miami — lost virtually all of its celebrity presence 18 hours before kickoff. Messi opted to rest and stay in Miami, frustrating a sold-out crowd full of Messi jerseys and newly minted Inter Miami fans.

“I am very disappointed given the level of anticipation and increased seating capacity that was made available, which I thought was primarily based on Messi’s MLS involvement and presence,” said Frank Chavez, a fan who shared the thoughts – and expenditures – expressed by many in the room. presence. Chavez flew from Texas with his son and bought tickets on the secondary market for $300 each.

“The preference would have been to have him here, obviously,” Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank said before the game in response to a Yahoo Sports question. “It’s the nature of sports. Injuries happen. If he can’t be here, he can’t be here.”

The will-he-won’t-he started even before Messi officially signed with Miami. Even as speculators snapped up tickets for future Inter Miami dates in August, September and October, Messi observers warned ominously that he would not play on artificial turf. When that theory turned out to be unfounded, attention turned to Argentina’s World Cup qualifiers last week. When Messi sat out Argentina’s match against Bolivia on Tuesday, hopes in Atlanta soared. But late Friday evening, word collapsed that Messi had not traveled with the team to Atlanta and would not play after all.

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“This is a decision the team has made because Messi has played in more games than anyone ever expected,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said shortly before the match started. “He came in quickly, he played in the US Open Cup, the Leagues Cup, he played for his country. That’s a lot of games for one man delivered in so many ways, both on and off the field.”

Still, for Atlanta fans hoping to see Messi, it must have felt like they were trying to defend the GOAT itself: a little hope, a little prayer, a little faith… and the knowledge that in the end, no matter what, Messi would always keep going. to do what he wanted.

“We were mentally prepared for the worst to happen, and it looks like that’s the case,” said Kael Rewers, who paid $150 per ticket and traveled from Illinois to the game. “The advantage is that Messi brought us to Atlanta United [when they played earlier this season]so we’re going to make the best of it.”

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ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 16: A fan holds a sign prior to a match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 16, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

A fan holds a sign ahead of Saturday’s match between Inter Miami CF and Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Photo by Michael Zarrilli/Getty Images)

Atlanta has a well-deserved reputation as a leading city. The fans show up in droves when their team is winning, but always find something else to do when the Braves, Hawks or Falcons are struggling.

However, that dynamic does not entirely apply to United. The team averages 46,504 fans per match, the most in the MLS, according to Soccer Stadium Digest. Eight of the ten most attended MLS matches have taken place at Mercedes-Benz Stadium; only LAFC’s Rose Bowl game on July 4 and Charlotte FC’s debut in March 2022 have eclipsed Atlanta United.

Even with secondary ticket prices well into the triple digits, Saturday’s match would almost certainly have been among the most attended in MLS history. Instead, ticket prices plummeted, dropping from an entry price of more than $200 earlier in the week to just $40 in the hours before the game.

For Saturday night’s game, the team opened additional seating for the Super Bowls and college football national championships, and the venue sold out. Despite Messi’s absence and huge ticket sales, the vast majority of fans still came to the match.

Liz Goncher and Ian Helfrich, two local students, bought their tickets a few days ago for $300 each. “We saw him in Barcelona a few years ago,” said Goncher. “So we saw him at least once.”

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If there was any doubt why so many fans were at the match, only a few of the thousands in the crowd wearing pink Messi jerseys cheered when Miami’s Leo Campana scored the game’s first goal in the 25th minute – and many more stood . and was celebrated when Atlanta’s Tristan Muyumba scored the equalizer about ten minutes later.

The absence of Messi-cheering casuals left the atmosphere in the stadium in the hands of the Atlanta United hardcores – the 17s, they call them here, after the year United began operating. With raucous chants, huge waving flags, fist-pumping Infinity Gauntlets and swirling giveaway towels, the 17s kept up a steady celebration that erupted into euphoria as United scored three times in a row to take a 3-1 lead at half-time. United then scored twice in the second half and Miami once for a final score of 5–2. It was Miami’s first defeat since Messi arrived.

Ultimately, that’s the best result Atlanta United could have hoped for, both on and off the field. Other clubs in the MLS where Messi actually took the field – including Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Dallas – have reported that new fans who came to the stadium just to see Messi have later returned to support the home team.

“This team, this stadium drew 45-50,000 people before the game [Messi] A schedule was created,” Garber said. “I’m sure there will be other options.”

Meanwhile, most fans seemed to adopt Frank Chavez’s philosophy on how to appreciate the evening: “Having fun,” he said, “largely wishing Messi would have appeared on the field, even if just for a few minutes. ”

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