Messi Mania Is Coming

The world’s best soccer player is on track to play at TQL Stadium next week. Can we handle the hype?

Collage by Jessica Dunham / Image of Messi by Yukihito Taguchi - USA Today Sports

The biggest cultural start to grace Cincinnati this summer is Taylor Swift? Not in your wildest dreams, Swifties! I present to you the global phenomenon that is Lionel Messi. 

He’s the greatest soccer player in history. The second team sport athlete ever to surpass $1 billion in career earnings. Author of the most-liked Instagram post ever. Messi’s fame is such that he’s known by a single moniker, much in the same way that LeBron, Serena, and a select few others are recognized in even the smallest population centers around the globe. 

Nineteen years after his professional debut, the best player in soccer history remains a dominant force, scoring seven times in seven matches to lead Argentina to World Cup glory last winter. And now one of the top athletes to ever walk the planet is scheduled to play at TQL Stadium on August 23. And he won’t be suiting up for FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, or the Argentinian national team (groups that helped him make his fortune) but for Major League Soccer club Inter Miami. 

One of the most prolific goal scorers and creative players in soccer history, Messi has scored more 800 senior career goals for club and country—including more goals in Europe’s “big five” domestic leagues than anyone else. He’s also accepted a record seven Ballon d’Or awards, a yearly honor bestowed upon the best men’s player in the world. 

Messi’s fame alone would be enough to captivate American sports fans, but despite his advancing athletic age—he turned 36 in June— he showed no signs of slowing down in claiming player of the tournament honors at the recent World Cup. When he announced his departure from European club football for Inter Miami, secondary ticket prices soared for the remainder of its home matches. Messi will bend box offices much more than David Beckham did with LA Galaxy; when he makes his MLS debut—expected well before the August 23 match here—it will be the most expensive ticket in league history. All of the hype comes with a cost: Unless you’re a FC Cincinnati season ticket holder, witnessing the Messi(ah) in person at TQL Stadium will be Taylor-Swift-times-10 difficult. 

The grandeur of Messi sells itself, but the Cincinnati match intrigue also lies with him facing off against one of Major League Soccer’s top units. FC Cincinnati has spent most of the season atop the Eastern Conference standings. Attacking midfielder Lucho Acosta, another Argentine, is a Most Valuable Player candidate; he, wingback Álvaro Barreal, and center back Matt Miazga were named MLS All-Stars last month. Barreal’s creativity in the final third has replaced the void left by the star striker Brenner, who departed earlier this summer for Europe. Miazga has shepherded a defense unrecognizable from the unit that was once the league leader in goals conceded. FC Cincinnati makes a habit now of winning a lot of 1–0 games. 

Apart from Messi’s first trip here—the first of many, we hope—the match doubles as a U.S. Open Cup semifinal, one of three parallel competitions FC Cincinnati is playing in this summer. The most important task is the league championship, a goal that would have been laughable after the club finished dead last in MLS from 2019 to 2021. It’s firmly within reach this season, though. 

Second in importance is the U.S. Open Cup. A win over Messi and Miami, plus a triumph in the championship on September 27, would earn the franchise its first trophy. The third track is the Leagues Cup, a new month-long tournament between MLS and Liga MX, Mexico’s professional soccer league. Teams in both leagues will play a total of 77 matches across the U.S. and Canada through August 19 in a World Cup-style tournament.

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