Messi’s Vancouver no-show explained — by Inter Miami, the Whitecaps and a bunch of upset fans

The posters proclaimed it, social media posts cranked up the hype, and local businesses took note.

The magical Messi roadshow was coming to Vancouver and, like with everywhere Inter Miami goes since the Argentina icon joined last summer, regular fans were set to mix with by star-struck daytrippers coming from far and wide to see him play.

Whitecaps’ BC Place stadium was expecting a far bigger than usual crowd for the MLS clash with Miami, which should ordinarily have featured Messi and his former Barcelona team-mates Luis Suarez and Sergio Busquets on Saturday.

Their hosts had even organized street parties (billed as the club’s ‘largest ever’) as part of an extraordinary match-day plan.

But there’s expectation and there’s reality: and the demands of the MLS schedule meant a dose of the latter for fans who paid hundreds of dollars for inflated tickets in the hope of seeing one of the greatest ever players in their home city.

On Thursday night it emerged — from the Whitecaps — that Messi, Suarez and Busquets would not make the long trip.

Whitecaps CEO Axel Schuster told the club’s official website: “While we haven’t received an official update on the availability of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez, and Sergio Busquets for this weekend, we understand they will not make this trip.”

The Whitecaps said in their statement that they are expecting a record-breaking crowd for the match, surpassing the 32,465 that attended the club’s 50th anniversary match on May 4, the team’s largest crowd in its MLS era (previous versions of the Whitecaps played in various leagues in the U.S. and Canada since 1974).

Schuster said that to make up for the absence of the trio, the team will be offering a 50 per cent reduction on all stadium food and a kids meal voucher for those attending who are under the age of 18.

“We know that there will also be a lot of disappointed fans,” Schuster said. “We remain committed to making this a special experience for everyone. It is still going to be an incredible atmosphere and celebration of soccer for our city. We have amazing fans, we have a good team, and Saturday’s match is a very important home game for us.”

For many of those disappointed fans, though, half-price food was not much consolation.

And as we approach the one-year anniversary of Messi’s arrival, is it time that MLS supporters, clubs, and the league itself were smarter about managing the demands placed on an aging superstar versus his money-spinning gravitational pull?

The distance between Miami and Vancouver makes it the longest away trip in Major League Soccer, at nearly 2,900 miles in the air or a six-and-a-half-hour nonstop flight. Inter Miami faces a quick turnaround, too, hosting Atlanta United at home on Wednesday.

“The reasons are exclusively based on what we’re facing this week,” said head coach Tata Martino on Friday in response to questions about why the star trio had stayed at home.

Messi and Suarez appeared at Inter’s Chase stadium that evening for the opening ceremony of the Youth International Cup.

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Suarez and Messi at the Youth International Cup on Friday evening (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

“Normally when these trips take place, and I’m speaking based on my experience at Atlanta United, the trip includes additional games in a nearby location so that the entire trip can be more manageable and not as exhausting,” said Martino.  

“We have two home games after [Vancouver]. In evaluating that, we felt it was prudent that [Messi, Suarez, Busquets] not participate in this match. They trained today and they’ll train again on Saturday and they’ll be prepared for what’s coming next week. 

There was a nod to the crestfallen Messi admirers too. “We understand the frustration from the fans, especially because of the hope that they have in seeing these players,” Martino added.

“As a staff sometimes we have to make these types of uncomfortable decisions that evidently frustrate people. But we have to look out for our club, the team and for our players.”

Miami’s uncomfortable decisions were followed by uncomfortable questions for the people behind the Whitecaps marketing team.

They can be forgiven for hoping to maximise the potential of Messi coming to town, but Martino underlined why other clubs may be wise to consider circumstances and nuance if they are to avoid future disappointment.

“We understand what these players mean to MLS and to this market, to the teams that we visit,” he said. “But we have to make these decisions, knowing that people will be upset. We know, however, that the decisions made benefit our team and our players.

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Tata Martino during a recent Inter Miami match. (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

“We can’t announce what our plans are going to be weeks in advance. … We had analyzed this knowing that we had three games in one week.

“We knew perfectly well what we’d be facing. Now we’ve had to make this decision. It’s not odd in my opinion. There are a lot of MLS teams who do the same thing. We know that the players who will not play tomorrow have revolutionized the league, especially Leo. 

“But we have to safeguard the health of the team.” 

MLS responded with a statement that acknowledged the “fan disappointment when marquee players are unavailable for fixtures” but did not address their own part in the process.

“Each MLS club makes its own personnel and competitive decisions based on what they believe is in the best interests of the club and each player,” the statement added. “The league will continue to review measures regarding how clubs report player availability.”

“We could’ve had another away game in Los Angeles or Kansas (City), something that’s more manageable,” Martino said. “It’s not the same to go to Montreal, which is a three-hour flight there and back, to then come back and face Orlando. 

“Vancouver is a total of 12 hours in flight plus the three-hour time zone difference. So we have to consider all of that. Perhaps the decision would’ve been different because we still have a top of the table position that we have to defend.

“And we’re following a plan that I had mentioned at the start of the year: earn as many points as possible while we have all of our players available. That’s going to change beginning next week (when players competing in the Copa America join up with their national team).”

One other suggested factor behind the decision is that the playing surface at BC Place is artificial turf, which many players worldwide refuse to play on due to a higher risk of injury or aggravation of an existing injury. But Messi has said before he is willing to play on it and did so a month ago against the New England Revolution at Gillette Stadium.

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Messi had no issues with New England’s artificial turf. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

For Messi, it will be the seventh game across all competitions he has missed this year, with previous absences owing to a leg injury and a few others due to rest. He took a knock in Miami’s game against Montreal on May 11, stayed in the game and played the full 90 minutes but missed the next match, midweek, against Orlando City.



Lionel Messi no-show prompts boos in Hong Kong, but Inter Miami focus on bigger picture

Disappointed supporters were more forthright in wanting answers from both Whitecaps and MLS.

There is frustration at missing out on what will likely be their only chance to see Messi, Busquets and Suarez this season, and Schuster admitted he has received many messages spelling that anger out.

“As a football fan, you want to see some of the greatest players of all time play against your club. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime type experiences,” said Tobyn Rootman, President of Vancouver Albion, a Whitecaps supporters group.

“I felt for young fans and for families who were coming from out of town, from the United States, from across Canada for this game. At the end of the day, I’m still going to be happy to be there and support the Whitecaps, but my feeling was definitely shock.”

Vancouver Albion are a unique group in that they are made solely of teenagers. When the Whitecaps season schedule was announced, the opportunities for these teenagers to sell their tickets to give others the chance to see Messi and co. in the flesh were plentiful.

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Messi and Suarez celebrate a goal against New England on April 27. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“People could have sold their tickets for $500 a few weeks ago. We’re teenagers. We’re not rolling in money,” he said. “The vast majority of people in our group work jobs outside of high school to be able to afford their season tickets. That amount of money could have paid off our entire season tickets.”

Instead, their entire supporters group – made of dozens of fans – bet on seeing Messi in the flesh.

“Not a single person (sold their tickets),” Rootman said.

“It’s going to be a loud supporters section. Just because this whole situation has riled up a lot of fans. It’s obviously caused a lot of animosity between supporters and casual fans. I think all of that energy will really come out tomorrow.”

Hard lessons aside, there may also still be an opportunity for Whitecaps — not the only club to try hard to sell more seats on the back of Messi’s visit — to salvage some positives from the situation.

Once Messi announced he was coming to MLS, teams around the league began to activate marketing for games in which they were going to host Inter Miami.

The Chicago Fire were among the most aggressive. For a team that has struggled on the field over the last decade-plus, and thus struggled to find a foothold in one of the country’s biggest markets, Chicago looked to use the Messi game as a chance for long-term impact.

They built pregame activations around the stadium and booked in-game promotions that included light-up wristbands and a halftime performance from Chicago rapper Lil Durk. In addition to pushing ticket sales around the game — prices soared, but the club made more than 200 price adjustments to limit the number of tickets bought by bots and resellers — they also built out more premium seating options, including field-side seats, pushed suite sales and invited potential sponsorship partners to the match.

The efforts worked. Heading into the 2023 season, the Fire had zero annual suite leases, but by the offseason had sold 37, the highest number in MLS, according to the club, and currently has nearly 50 annual leases.

When it became clear that Messi might miss the game due to injury, the Fire pushed to find a way to convert Messi ticket buyers into Fire fans.

Chicago offered a $250 account credit toward new memberships for the 2024 season – or a $50 account credit for anyone unable to use the new member credit – to all single-ticket buyers who attended the match against Inter Miami. That promotion led to over 700 new memberships, according to the club, which contributed to the 3,000 new season ticket holders for the 2024 season.

In the end, Messi didn’t play in Chicago. But the night was a success nonetheless. The game was the highest-grossing MLS regular season match of all-time and the home team put on a show for the record crowd of 62,124. Xherdan Shaqiri had by far his best game with the Fire, scoring twice, as Chicago trounced Inter Miami, 4-1, in front of what turned into a boisterous home crowd.

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Shaqiri signs autographs for a mix of Chicago and Miami fans. (Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports)

The Fire carried the lessons over. When Messi and Miami landed on the schedule again for 2024, Chicago offered comped tickets for the Miami game for all new season ticket memberships purchased. They also set aside thousands of tickets for current season ticket holders to purchase, as well as for community organizations.

Rachele Renzi is one of those fans who thinks Whitecaps should do more than a cut-price meal voucher. She spent $335 on a ticket she bought for her brother Samuele, who scheduled his 5,545-mile-trip (8,923 kms) from their family home in Civitanova Marche, Italy, to visit her around the time of the game.

The 26-year-old marketing specialist, who has lived in Vancouver for six years, bought the ticket from Ticketmaster and is angry at the Whitecaps for their Messi-centric advertising, and refusal to offer anything more than half price food in the wake of his no-show.

“My brother is a huge Messi fan and he’s very sad,” she says. “I paid a premium price on the back of the advertising on the club social media, website and coverage in the media. The reason they sold out the stadium is because of Messi.

“I understand that they can’t guarantee who will play but they can control whether or not to charge inflated prices for tickets for the game. To just say people can have half-price food vouchers isn’t good enough. I think they should offer a partial refund to people who paid so much.”

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Samuele Renzi, who had travelled from Italy to see Messi. (Photo courtesy of Rachele Renzi)

Asked in a pre-game press conference whether Whitecaps would follow Fire’s reaction to their own predicament last year, Schuster said the two situations cannot be compared.

“Chicago is an Eastern conference team, they will play Miami this year again and next year again,” he said. “They have offered a credit to a future ticket that people can use for another Miami game and that’s not what it is for us so for that reason I don’t think we can really compare what Chicago did.”

He emphasised that the Whitecaps learned “less than 24 hours before about the rumours that might be the scenario [Messi not travelling]” and immediately reached out to Miami.

“But it’s not the thing professional teams do to share too much information because the whole thing tomorrow is that it’s a sporting competition so you are holding back information,” he said. “The best answer we could get is that they had not made the final decisions and would make the final selection after training. We really learned an hour or two before we went out with our message.” 

For his part, Martino had said he was “fine” with those back channels confirming his early team news because the club “had been in communication with Vancouver’s president knowing that he would have to make decisions and look after his fanbase”. 

The 61-year-old pushed back at the thought Inter owed their opponents much more, though.

“It’s up to the team’s who host us to have a plan B in case Leo can’t travel and then communicate to their fans accordingly,” he said, adding that when Miami play at home “we don’t announce it 20 days in advance [if Messi will not play].”

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(Trevor Ruszkowski/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Regarding whether he had feared this might have happened due to Miami’s schedule, Schuster said he had been hopeful. “Since we learned about the game there were always concerns. But we saw them playing in New England and their turf is no better than ours but we knew they had no (mid-week) game this week so at least there was a bit of a break,” he said.

“We are no different from our fans. I can tell you the players were most excited and now most disappointed because as a player you want to be on the pitch with the best.”

That optimism certainly drove the Whitecaps to be decisive in trying to boost their coffers when the fixture list dropped.

According to Peter Czimmermann, president and secretary of Vancouver Southsiders, the club tried to promote more expensive season tickets to supporters to ensure they had a seat for Miami’s visit.

“I don’t know how subtle they were about the opportunity and the risks involved,” says Czimmermann. “The star players are used throughout the league every day. When the schedule came out, the Caps really pushed everybody to get season tickets, which was basically the cheapest way to get a guaranteed ticket to this match. And then they did jack-up the price for the single match. They also sold this ticket as part of a three game pack. 

“This year is the team’s 50th anniversary. It’s a big deal. I think I was very disappointed that they raised the prices as a supporter because it limits our ability to get in home supporters to the stadium. 

“But also it’s a business. Every franchise is responsible to bring in money because somebody has to pay for the players, whether indirectly or directly. And I’d rather that money go to the club than to the resale market. That’s my personal opinion.”

Czimmermann also said he has seen tickets for the game on resale changing hands for up to $1,000, although he played down the suggestions that hoteliers were cynically inflating prices around the Miami match.

The star guest may have excused himself but diehard Whitecaps fans, and club executives, are hoping there are still enough attendees for a memorable party.

“It’s still a soccer game,” says Czimmermann. “It’s still gonna be great. Miami is still good — it’s gonna be a tough match.”

For those in power at the Whitecaps, there will be a time to reflect on whether their marketing strategy was foolproof.

“I will stop to think about that after this game,” said Schuster. “There will be a time we have to go over it and ask could we have done better and what can we do differently in future?

“When the game was in the schedule and we started to sell tickets most of the people in the game said, ‘Come on they [the ex Barcelona players] will not all come, you have the artificial turf etc’ but I thought all the reasons that might happen have gone away over the weeks and months.”

(Additional contributors: Paul Tenorio, Adam Crafton and Joshua Kloke)

(Photos: Getty Images)

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