If the phenomenon of Lionel Messi Mania needed any further confirmation, this weekend proved it again: not even the world stars of Hollywood can dim his shine.
In a town spoiled for choice, it takes a lot to get Angelino sports fans to take notice. At the Crypto.com Arena, where the NBA’s joint-most successful franchise, the LA Lakers, and basketball legend LeBron James play, supporters frequently turn up late, skipping the relatively inconsequential back-and-forth of the first quarter. To watch Inter Miami beat MLS Cup holders LAFC 3-1 on Sunday evening, the BMO Stadium was humming before the players were out to warm up.
And it might have been full earlier if not for fans gathering outside in eager anticipation of the arrival of the team bus. By MLS standards, any LAFC regular-season game is a hot ticket — they religiously sell out their 22,000-listed capacity with a devoted fanbase that is the envy of most of the league. For this occasion, however, Messi’s travelling army of supporters comfortably outnumbered the home support, bringing a generous slice of the invigorated DRV PNK atmosphere wherever Miami travel.
Outside the grounds, punters were stationed on every corner flipping counterfeit Miami jerseys with Messi and his iconic No 10 printed on the back. But even the demand for the Messi jersey does not compare to the rush for a ticket. In the days leading up to the event, Gametime (a last-minute ticket-selling platform) reported the lowest-priced tickets were on the market for about $800 (£634), with the top-priced on the market for more than $17,000 (£13,400) — the most expensive MLS regular-season game on record.
With the increased attention came a boost in security. A helicopter circled the stadium ahead of the match and reappeared in its early stages, while there was a notable increase in police personnel inside and outside the grounds. Even Messi’s famed bodyguard, Yassine Chueko, was drawn into action in the second half when a fan managed to evade the stewards and run half the length of the pitch to touch his idol.
Messi was far from the only A-Lister at the BMO Stadium: those in attendance to watch the greatest of his generation in Los Angeles included part-owners Magic Johnson and Will Ferrell, as well as LeBron James, Selena Gomez, Owen Wilson, Leonardo DiCaprio and British royals Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, to name a few. Many other big names tried and failed to pull strings to get a seat for the hottest ticket in town, with the attendance recorded at 22,921 — a stadium record for soccer.
Despite being outnumbered by Messi supporters, the 3252 — LAFC’s supporters group — let Messi know that he would not be given a heroes welcome by all sections of the stadium, letting boos ring out as he stepped on the field to start his warm-up. The jeering continued into the game’s early stages, with the noise from the North End greeting Messi as he took his first few touches, leaving him under no illusions as to where the singing stand’s allegiances lie.
They should have had something to cheer about, too, with Denis Bouanga spurning two big chances inside 15 minutes, the second effort drawing an excellent save from goalkeeper Drake Callender, one of Miami’s standout players since Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba arrived in MLS. As it transpired, LAFC were made to rue chances missed shortly after, with Miami’s Facundo Farias scoring with a sliding effort from the edge of the 18-yard box that goalkeeper John McCarthy might have done better with.
The sections of the stadium of a Messi persuasion — largely coloured in Miami pink, the blue and white of Argentina or the ‘blaugrana’ of Barcelona — had to wait six minutes into the second half to see the Argentine forward truly come alive after McCarthy denied his sole goalscoring opportunity in the first period. As they so often did at Camp Nou, left-back Jordi Alba made a darting run off the ball and into the open field beyond Messi, who had received Busquets’ midfield-splitting pass in a pocket of space in line with the goal.
Made to look so simple, the Argentinian threaded a pass into Alba, who side-footed beyond McCarthy and into the LAFC net for two, a growingly predictable moment of casual genius between the legendary triumvirate of European and international football.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo. “None of us should not expect it from the best player in the world. What did you think he was going to do when he came here?”
The exclamation point was put on the road victory late with seven minutes of regular time remaining, when Messi recorded his second assist of the game and fifth as a Miami player, slipping in Leonardo Campana for Miami’s third of the evening. LAFC defender Ryan Hollingshead’s stoppage-time consolation goal took the gloss off an accomplished away performance — reflected on by Gerardo Martino as Miami’s most complete since he joined as head coach in June, given the quality of the opponent — but, again, Messi and Miami delivered on the biggest stage.
Now, Messi turns his attention to Argentina, who open their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign with matches against Ecuador (home) and Bolivia (away). For Miami, the weight of the challenge of overcoming their eight-point play-off differential is transferred onto Busquets and Alba’s shoulders as they host Sporting Kansas City in Fort Lauderdale next Saturday.
Providing his team-mates hold the fort on the weekend, a late Messi-inspired charge to secure the most unlikely play-off berth feels more than possible.
(Top photo: Frederic J Brown/AFP via Getty Images)