No Messi? Anger, dismay and schadenfreude from Whitecaps fans

News broke Thursday that none of Miami’s star players were coming to Vancouver, save Jordi Alba, leaving a sold-out stadium short on mega star power

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The email dropped with the usual soft falsetto chime in my inbox, but should have hit a foreboding gong, considering its contents.

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It opened with a sledgehammer — Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez did not travel with Inter Miami Thursday for the weekend game with the Vancouver Whitecaps. It closed with a cheeky question: will B.C. Place need more or less security now?

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A fair question, considering shops on Robson boarded up their windows before the Vancouver Canucks Game 7 with Edmonton. And with many of the 55,000 or so expected to be at B.C. Place on Saturday shelling out thousands of dollars for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one could see some anger being expressed over being robbed of the chance to see Soccer Jesus and his acolytes.

Argentines, soccer diehards, casuals and celebrity spotters alike had boosted attendance to what was expected to be a Major League Soccer era record for the Whitecaps. The excitement this week was palpable. Messi’s compatriots in Vancouver waxed poetically about how time would practically stand still while they watched him play. The hype machine hit the nitrous, with many a publication (cough) planning to feature long-winded articles examining the Messi phenomenon.

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After hours of repeated requests, the news was confirmed officially.

No Messi.

No Busquets.

No Suarez.

No way.

This was a predictable problem for Major League Soccer. They have made a near-37-year-old the face of the league, and the decades of elite-level play have taken a toll on Messi’s body.

He’s already missed a few games this season with a leg injury, and combine that with the notoriously long flight from Florida and even more notorious turf at B.C. Place, it’s understandable that the Argentine legend might not play.

Suarez reportedly didn’t play any games on turf last season while suiting up for Gremio in Brazil, and B.C. Place’s playing surface doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation leaguewide. Busquets is 35, another long in the tooth star who doesn’t mesh well with a condensed playing schedule.

The Whitecaps are the ones who will face the brunt of the fans’ ire locally, even with their offer of cheapish beers and burgers. But it’s really MLS who should be stepping up to the plate.

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The league is, after all, a centrally owned entity that has investor-operators instead of classic team owners. MLS gets a share of ticket sales and outgoing transfer fees, as well as all the money from national broadcast rights, online merchandise, and league-level sponsorships. Messi is now part of that through his profit-sharing contract. His deal includes a cut of Apple TV subscriptions and jersey sales, and a chance to buy a stake in Inter Miami when he retires.

The league website is practically a Messi fan page, with dozens of articles about him and the Herons.

So if he’s already, essentially, part of the league, then it’s the league who should be stepping up with refunds for those sold a dream. Last season, the Chicago Fire offered credit toward future ticket packages when he didn’t play — $250 for season-ticket holders, $50 for single-game buyers — but this year, in the markets he’s played (DC United, New York Red Bulls, Orlando), no other team has made similar offers. The Whitecaps did announce all food and beverage in stadium would be 50 per cent off on Saturday, and ticket holders under 18 would get a meal voucher.

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Reactions to the news were swift.

Mauro Sidoti, an Argentine expat, had been excited to see Messi at B.C. Place with his son, but had started to hedge his emotional bets when the Miami star missed a game against Orlando earlier this month.

“I would say I’m a seven out of 10 (in terms of disappointment),” he said. “Fingers crossed I will have another chance to see him in Atlanta (at the Copa America tournament) in less than a month. Otherwise it would definitely be a 10 out of 10.”

Inter Miami's Argentine forward #10 Lionel Messi takes a break on the pitch during Inter Miami CF's Fútbol Fiesta Open training day at Chase Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on May 21, 2024.
Lionel Messi takes a break on the pitch during Inter Miami CF’s Fútbol Fiesta Open training day at Chase Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on May 21, 2024. Photo by CHRIS ARJOON /AFP via Getty Images

“I’m very upset,” said Gustavo Zadunaisky, an active member of B.C.’s soccer community and Argentine national. “They were supposed to at least come even (if they weren’t) playing.”

On the site once known as Twitter, Asif Lalani wrote a response to the Whitecaps’ statement: “You upcharged this game specifically because of those players. Refunding money to those who paid 5-10x normal game prices is completely in your control. That would be my expectation or 100%, my family will not be attending any more games in my lifetime.”

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When Mariana Martinez, another Argentine expatriate, saw the game on the schedule before the season, she immediately bought extra tickets — including extra tickets for friends and family. She’d even planned a surprise for her 16-year-old son, getting him a chance to be pitchside for warm-up. A therapist by trade, she’d said this game was her therapy. Hopefully she won’t need any extra help from her professional peers.

“It was a tough one,” she said via text Thursday. “He now knows about going onto the pitch … he wants to go anyways. … I am more disappointed than he is. He’s very pragmatic — great attitude for a boy who wants to go pro as a soccer player.”

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