Lionel Messi's understated demeanor belies the football giant within
SEATTLE - They began chanting his name long before kickoff here on Tuesday evening. Lionel Messi was nowhere in sight, as Argentina's reserves didn't warm up on the pitch ahead of Tuesday's 3-0 win over Bolivia at CenturyLink Field. But there was a palpable buzz in the air among the fans in the stadium. Messi's presence could be felt before he could be seen. He has played in Seattle before, of course, when the Sounders met his Barcelona in 2009. But that, like the rest of his many previous appearances across North America, was in a summer friendly played at half-speed. This one, Argentina's final group stage match of the Copa America Centenario, was different. This was the real thing.
The place erupted when Messi emerged from the tunnel in the southeast corner before the national anthem. He walked in the middle of a circle formed by his fellow subs. Except for those brief 90-minute intervals when he's on the field, the 28-year-old global icon always has a layer of security around him. It's not that he's guarded -- the painfully shy teenager he was a decade ago is no more -- but as one of the most famous people on the planet, those fortunate enough to work with or for him seem to protect him out of instinct as much as obligation.
He needs them to, because wherever he goes, Messi is a one-man boy band.
As the Argentine walked across the field toward the sideline, just about every fan - roughly a third of whom were clad in Messi's famous No. 10 shirt -- in the lower bowl was on their feet. Extra police were stationed by the bench. A throng of yellow-vested photographers pointed their cameras at the five-time Ballon d'Or winner. Not a single shutterbug focused his lens on Bolivia's side of the halfway line.
Before the match, Argentina coach Gerardo Martino said that Messi would play in the game. He had missed the Albiceleste's opening match of the Copa, a 2-1 win over Chile on June 6, because of a rib injury he suffered in a pre-tournament friendly. But he had scored a 19-minute hat trick off the bench four days later against Panama, and those in attendance on Tuesday were in an expectant mood.
With Argentina up 3-0 at halftime, there was a sense of worry when Messi again didn't warm up at the break. But minutes before the whistle sounded, Messi, in uniform, jogged into the twilight to another cascade of noise.
The crowd was enraptured once play began. There were 22 players on the temporary grass, yet the eyes of all 45,753 seemed to be trained on just one. Messi drew oohs and aahs every time he got near the ball or made one of his trademark darting runs. He went close with a free kick. Messi shifted from flank to flank in search of space with a Bolivian man-marker -- even down three goals, they marked him tightly -- hot on his heels. Whatever position he took up, the fans on lower sidelines remained standing for the entire second half.
Messi didn't score in what was a somewhat-forgettable cameo by his own otherworldly standards. But true to form, he left those who travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles to see him play with a memorable highlight: a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it nutmeg of keeper Carlos Lampe, which went viral on social media within minutes. Diego Bejarano, the aforementioned man-marker, was lurking in Messi's shadow as the final seconds ticked away, this time to ask for his jersey.
Martino talked after the game about the burden Messi carries with him wherever he goes, the pressure he has to make dreams come true for his adoring flock, whatever his physical condition happens to be at the time.
"People pay, all over the world, to see him," Martino said. "He has that obligation, to fulfill and follow through with the fans that are paying for him to be there. So he understands that. And he lives with that."
Most of the Argentine players ducked journalists stationed in the mixed zone and were already on the team bus by the time Messi emerged from the locker room. The mixed zone snaked around a corner, and once again, you could feel Messi's presence before actually catching a glimpse of him, which was what everyone -- media, volunteers and VIPs, including Seattle Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer and head coach Sigi Schmid -- appeared to be trying to do. Messi can reduce the most dedicated professional to a fan, even if only for a moment,
Two barrel-chested men in suits came around the bend first before Messi, who at 5-foot-7 looks even smaller in person than he does on television, dutifully answered questions. Those who've seen him up close before are reminded how normal Messi seems, even if they know he's anything but. David Beckham was like that. Other icons, like Zinedine Zidane, have an almost regal air.
Messi chatted with reporters in Spanish for about four minutes and then spent a few more talking to TV crews further down the line, before a wall of bodies surrounded him and whisked him out of sight once again. He might not have scored a goal, but the Argentine talisman still gave everyone in the building a night they'll remember for the rest of their lives.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.