Will Lionel Messi get to play the 2026 World Cup? 2:04

(CNN) -- It was a tantalizing revelation: The lid of a pizza box opened to show Lionel Messi's Friday night dinner: his freshly baked food. But at that time, some of his many fans completely lost their appetite.

It wasn't their choice of dressings prepared by the Argentine restaurant Banchero in Miami that turned their stomachs — for the record, it was eight green olives and onion rings arranged on a bed full of tomato slices, apparently without cheese — but the timing of their posting on social media.

"I opened Instagram and saw the story of Lionel Messi eating a pizza in Miami," Rishi Trivedi, a Messi supporter, told CNN Sport, "so I got a little confused. Wait, didn't he travel to Atlanta?" added Trivedi, referring to Atlanta United's Major League Soccer (MLS) match against Inter Miami on Saturday.

By morning, Trivedi's worst fears had come true. "I couldn't sleep well. I woke up at 8 in the morning and found that (Messi) doesn't play. I worried about him; He's still my favourite player, but I'm a bit disappointed," he said.

His friends spoke of his anguish and Jenil Patel also had some critical words about Messi's taste: "I must say that if you are going to eat pizza, at least ask for a better pizza!"


It wasn't just fans trying to digest the news of Messi's absence, but Inter Miami's rivals found out through social media. Atlanta United coach Gonzalo Pineda told reporters: "Well, I checked his [now X] Twitter account to see if he was playing and saw a pizza with tomatoes."

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Lionel Messi trains during an Inter Miami CF training session at the Florida Blue Training Center on Friday in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Credit: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Ticket frenzy to see Messi

From the moment Messi confirmed he would be moving to the United States in July, MLS fans across the country began checking the schedule for opportunities to watch him play and, for many, the away game against Atlanta United seemed like a good bet.

The Mercedes Benz Stadium seats more than 70,000 fans and United quickly announced it would put all seats up for sale. The minimum price was $125 and it wasn't long before some of those tickets were resold on secondary markets for well above face value.

Messi's explosive impact only fueled the excitement even more. In his first 11 games with Inter Miami, the 36-year-old scored 11 goals and helped his new team win the Leagues Cup, their first trophy.

He played as many games as he could, missing out on only one home win against Sporting Kansas City, but that was because he was on international duty with Argentina, and not even the great Messi can be in two places at once.

The only reasons to think he might not play in Atlanta would be an injury or a concern about the stadium's artificial field.

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However, at Messi's first press conference in August, the 36-year-old said he was fine with the grass, so the expectation that he would come to Atlanta continued to grow.

When supporters began walking through the gates at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, many had already accepted he would not come, though some didn't believe it and others were distraught.

Angel Galdamez said he paid nearly $2,000 for three tickets three weeks before the game.

"I feel bad," Galdamez told CNN. "I'm working hard for my money." His friend Irma Lopez said they had only come to see Messi. "I want to go home right now," he lamented, "because we only came for him."

What these followers found particularly irritating was that the value of their tickets had already dropped to just $40.

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Messi enters the stadium ahead of the 2023 Leagues Cup final match between Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF at DRV PNK Stadium on August 2, 2023 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Credit: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Messi is "like a god"

It's always news when the biggest stars take the field, but it's also great news when they don't play at all. Even when he was almost 1,000 kilometers away, Messi managed to steal the show.

His club told CNN he was resting because of the number of minutes he had played since arriving in Miami, noting that the artificial field was not a factor. But some followers asked why he couldn't have at least made the trip; They said they would have been happy just to see him, if only for a brief glimpse.

"I wish I could have at least come and seen him in person, even if he was on the bench. Seeing him would have made the money worthwhile, because he is like a god! Rohan Jhanjee told CNN.

It would be hard to overestimate Messi's impact on North American soccer since his arrival.

MLS had already been expanding rapidly and in just three years the continent will co-host the World Cup. But Messi's arrival has elevated the MLS brand to a new level.

The iconic striker led Argentina to their World Cup triumph in December, and is now the most popular ticket in Miami, with celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, Prince Harry and Selena Gomez flocking to see him.

His impact has been so profound that some Atlanta season ticket holders even switched allegiance that day and wore pink Inter Miami jerseys with Messi's name on the back.

"We are grateful for the fact that he is here in the United States. When Messi and Miami are not in Atlanta, we are Atlanta United fans," Lacey Hunt told CNN.

Throughout the day, fans wondered if Messi should have been present at the match, and also if the club or league had any obligation to warn fans that he might not attend.

Most people CNN spoke to understood that coaches must put the interests of their players and their team before everything else. Football is still primarily a competitive sport in the entertainment world.

Messi leaves the field after a match against the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on Aug. 26. (Credit: Brad Penner/USA Today Network/Reuters)

The big red L

Messi had already played 12 games since the third week of July and Miami is about to embark on a grueling schedule that will include six games in just 18 days. The U.S. Open Cup final against Houston in late September is one of them: a chance to win another trophy.

By the time Messi returns to play, he will have rested almost two weeks and Miami will hope it was worth it.

They must also hope that his absence from a crucial league match has not been too costly. Atlanta won the match 5-2, Miami's first loss since Messi's arrival, leaving the team second-to-last in the Eastern Conference.

For MLS, it could also have been a missed opportunity to showcase its product at a time of year when many American sports fans are more interested in another type of soccer, as Messi would have played in front of one of the biggest crowds he would have seen since the World Cup final.

However, Atlanta United didn't complain and their social media team was the last to laugh, posting their own image of a pizza on their social media. They had used the same Messi ingredients on a dough base, but the tomatoes had been rearranged to form a large red L.

Lionel Messi