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Excitement builds for Lionel Messi’s New England debut

New England Revolution

Messi is expected to play the Revolution with his MLS club Inter Miami on Saturday.

Excitement builds for Lionel Messi’s New England debut

Lao Mengelle, wearing an Argentine soccer jersey, moves with the ball during a recent pick-up soccer match in Boston. “I would die for this man,” Mengelle said of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

Ana Videla Sola Montoya remembers Argentina’s 2022 World Cup victory fondly.

Four million people filled the streets of her hometown, Buenos Aires, she remembers. Argentina is a “very difficult country to live in,” marked by high rates of inflation and unhappiness, according to Montoya, an Emerson College student. But after the World Cup, “everyone was happy,” she said.

At the center of it all? Lionel Messi.

The international soccer sensation, considered by many to be the greatest of all time, is the focus of many Argentine soccer fans’ fervor.

“Messi is kind of like our God over there,” Montoya said.

Supporters of the revolution had better start praying. Messi will make his New England debut Saturday night, when his MLS club Inter Miami takes on the Revs, who occupy the bottom of the 15 teams in the Eastern Conference standings. The 36-year-old – fresh off a $20.4 million-a-year contract with Miami – has brought unprecedented attention to professional soccer in the United States, and particularly in soccer-dominating Boston, baseball and basketball.

Excitement around the big match and Messi’s debut is growing, especially among local fans with ties to Argentina, where Messi is not just a soccer star, but a cultural hero.

“I would die for this man, even if he doesn’t know me,” said Lao Mengelle, 24, who was born in Buenos Aires but moved to the United States at a young age and now lives in the North End, where he works like an insurance broker.

Mengelle has a tattoo dedicated to Messi – an image of a ‘five of cups’ tarot card, which is used in thing, a popular card game in South America. The tattoo commemorates the moment when, before Argentina’s 2021 Copa America victory over Brazil, Messi, playing the game with his teammates, correctly guessed the five of cups before blindly drawing a card – an omen that the team would win.

Lao Mengelle has a tattoo of a “five of cups” tarot card, a nod to a card game played by Messi and his teammates before winning the 2021 Copa America tournament.

After Argentina won another international trophy at the 2022 World Cup, fulfilling the prophecy of the “five of cups”, Mengelle had the symbol engraved on his right arm.

“He brings me joy,” Mengelle said of Messi. “He also makes me very upset sometimes watching him play. But I have always been a fan of his, I will always support him no matter what he does, and he is a shining light for our country at all times.

Arlo Valiela, another Argentine-born fan, said he follows Messi’s career “everywhere he goes”.

Valiela, a student and data analyst at Northeastern University, was an FC Barcelona fan who grew up on Messi, bonding at games with her grandfather and other family members. When Messi played at Paris Saint-Germain FC, he also followed that team. And since Messi signed his MLS contract, potentially ending his professional career in the United States, Valiela has also kept tabs on Inter Miami – even though he only follows MLS ‘casually’ , did he declare.

“If you ask me a Revolution game I care about this year, I care about this one,” Valiela said.

For Valiela, the link between being Argentinian and being a Messi fan is “one to one,” he said. “It’s so inherent.”

Although Valiela doesn’t consider himself “one of the crazy ones,” he said, Messi’s fandom is rooted in his personal and family life.

“Anytime I get a chance to see, support or watch, it’s something I really enjoy doing,” Valiela said. “I’m just below makeup level and screaming at a TV.”

Lao Mengelle (left) and Arlo Valiela pose for a portrait in their Argentina soccer jerseys before playing soccer in Boston.

These fans aren’t the only ones excited about Messi. Its debut generated “unprecedented levels of interest,” said Cathal Conlin, vice president of marketing and fan engagement for the New England Revolution.

Saturday’s match is expected to sell out at the 65,000-seat Gillette Stadium, which is expected to set the record for the most attended Revolution match – a considerable jump from the usual attendance for Revolution matches, which is somewhere around 20 000 fans, Conlin said.

Demand is high and the few remaining tickets are not cheap. Typically, tickets to a regular season game sell for around $20. On Ticketmaster as of Friday, the cheapest tickets to the Messi match are around $250 – and that’s nosebleeds.

“I’ve never seen a Revolution game with this kind of price on the secondary market,” Conlin said. “It’s just been off the charts since the calendar came out.”

Conlin said interest in the Revolution has increased over the past five years, during which the club has seen 43 percent growth in attendance. An uptick in sales of season tickets, multi-match packages and individual matches due to Messi’s place in the schedule has certainly added “fuel to that fire”, Conlin said.

And the Revolution does everything to retain new fans.

“It’s a missed opportunity if we don’t take this crowd of 65,000 and turn at least a portion of the people there into regular Revolution fans,” Conlin said.

Some local fans will avoid large crowds on Saturday and gather at homes and restaurants to enjoy authentic Argentinian cuisine and watch Messi with friends and family.

Che! Empanada, a restaurant with locations in Worcester and Newton, will broadcast the game on its in-house televisions and offer special deals for the occasion (buy six empanadas, get two free).

Owner Albie Alvarez-Cote said the restaurant even serves an empanada called “the Messi” — beef, bacon and cheddar wrapped and baked in a homemade dough.

“He’s a favorite,” Alvarez-Cote, 58, said. “Argentinians love it.”

Although she has been loyal to the Revolution, having served empanadas to players at club events, Alvarez-Cote believes the home team will forgive her for cheering them on, just this once – after all, how could she not not support Messi?

“(For) Argentinians, you are almost born into your team…Football is a way of life,” she said. “Football is in the blood.”

Boston

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