Just the name Lionel Messi was enough to excite soccer devotees in Chicago, but those who turned out for Saturday’s exhibition at Soldier Field didn’t all go home happy.
The latest Messi and Friends vs. The Rest of the World event was a fiasco. There’s no other way to describe it.
Actually, the sad scenario began June 29, when a similar match -– designed to benefit the Barcelona star’s charity plans -– was held in Medellin, Colombia. It drew only a reported crowd of 12,000.
The same promoter planned a similar match at the Los Angeles Coliseum on July 3. Less than 24 hours before the match the game’s staff announced that Messi wouldn’t be participating.
In a statement, Todd Graham, chief executive officer of El Padrino Spirits Inc., said: "After hours of trying to convince Lionel Messi’s management team to fulfill their contractual agreement and come to Los Angeles, it’s clear they have no respect for these fans and this market. We feel it’s a blatant attempt to defraud the American citizens and businesses that sponsored this event."
The Los Angeles event was canceled. Chicago’s promoter -– not the same one that organized the matches in Medellin and Los Angeles -- immediately announced that the Soldier Field event would go on and that Messi would be on the field. Press information was sent out at the last minute and a press conference was scheduled for the day before to promote the exhibition.
Messi also issued a statement, saying that the Los Angeles cancellation was due to "irreconcilable issues with the local promoter." He also stated that he was glad to be part of the Chicago match.
That match had its problems already. Ticket prices were slashed three weeks before the match when they weren’t selling, but some fans had paid over $2,000 for admission to a meet-and-greet with the players after the match and parking for all who attended –- promoters said 25,000 tickets were sold -– was still a hefty $40.
The "press conference," delayed several hours into the evening, turned out more a chance for fan participation than for disseminating information to the media. Messi answered a few questions in Spanish and a few more through a translator via a teleconference call.
As was the case in Colombia, the match resulted in a win for Messi’s team -- by an identical 9-6 score. He scored four goals against a team that was hardly "world" class. While the opposition did include former U.S. captain and Chicago Fire player Carlos Bocanegra and Thierry Henry, on a break from his duties with the New York Red Bulls, the World team needed help from Northwestern University’s men’s team to play the match.
One of those 10 Wildcats, alumni Matt Eliason produced the match highlight with an over-the-head boot into the net off a pass from Henry. It was a spectacular goal and made the TV highlights, but that was about the only good thing that happened.
Messi left the game in the 69th minute and wasn’t around when it was over, drawing an immediate tweet from TV commentator Alexi Lalas:
I'm sure he had his reasons, but Messi leaving his own #MessiAndFriends charity game before it's even over is weak.— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) July 7, 2013
Yes, it was, and soccer matches at Soldier Field over the years have been a mixed bag. This one only added to their checkered history.
While the 1994 World Cup finals there still produce fond memories, the lakefront venue was also the site of a Manchester United-Bayern Munich exhibition in which those celebrated clubs fielded basically their reserve teams but still charged top dollar for tickets.
That left a bad taste with any knowledgeable fans. So did the Chicago Park District operation of the facility, which caters to football’s Bears over all else. The Park District didn’t do much more than chalk the field when the Chicago Fire played a significant tournament match there in the days before Toyota Park was available. Though that match was in March, the football stripes from the Bears’ season -– which had ended three months earlier -– were still evident.
Messi’s match took things to a similarly low level and certainly won’t stimulate the popularity of such international matches at Soldier Field in the future. The facility, however, does have a big soccer event coming up on July 28 -- the final in the month-long CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. No one -- from players, to organizers, to fans -- will be taking that one lightly.