Lionel Messi, the greatest soccer player in the world in the eyes of many, arrived in Miami on Thursday afternoon with his FC Barcelona teammates to prepare for Saturday’s “El Clasico” clash against rival Real Madrid in front of an expected sellout crowd at Hard Rock Stadium.
The team bus arrived at the Brickell City Centre’s East Hotel, escorted by police, while about 150 fans — many in Messi jerseys — cheered from behind barricades as the players were whisked into the lobby. Several hours later, FC Barcelona had a private training session scheduled at Barry University. The team is appearing on stage at noon Friday at Casa Clasico, the free fan fest at Bayfront Park.
It remains to be seen whether Messi will get a chance to go toe-to-toe with the only other man who could make a case for best in the world, Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo. As of Thursday afternoon, his status for the game was unknown. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, whose company Relevent owns and runs the event, said Thursday he was “probably more pessimistic than optimistic.”
He said they have a private jet waiting for Ronaldo if he decides to show up.
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“We’ve reached out, we’ve done everything,” Ross said. “That weekend, he has some complex issues as you all know, back in Spain. I’ve got a plane waiting. He hasn’t said finally no. We’ll probably know relatively soon.”
Ronaldo did not travel with the team to its two International Champions Cup matches in California, choosing instead to take an extended summer break with his pregnant girlfriend and fly to Singapore and China for commercial obligations. His schedule this week is complicated because he is expected to be in a Madrid courtroom Monday to testify in a tax-evasion case.
Spanish prosecutors claim Ronaldo failed to pay $17 million of taxes on image rights earned between 2011 and 2014, and that he used a shell company in the British Virgin Islands to hide some of his income. He has vehemently denied the charge and says he expects to be vindicated.
Messi is also in the midst of a tax-fraud battle involving foreign shell companies and image rights. In 2016, he and his father, Jorge, who handles his finances, were sentenced to 21 months in prison. They are appealing and unlikely to face jail time because even if the convictions stand, they can serve them through probation.
Other than that case hanging over his 5-foot-7 frame, Messi has had a restful summer. Unlike Ronaldo, who had to play until late June because Portugal reached the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, Messi’s last game before the U.S. tour was June 9.
He had plenty of time to recover, signed a contract extension through 2021 that pays him $33.6 million per year, and on July 1 he married Antonella Roccuzzo, his childhood sweetheart and mother of his two sons.
Messi returned to the team refreshed, and word is that the 30-year-old is at peak fitness. Barca players were fitted with GPS trackers during the U.S. tour, and Spanish papers report that Messi is smashing his personal records for speed, acceleration, kilometers run and aerobic capacity.
The five-time Ballon D’Or winner, who joined FC Barcelona’s youth team at age 13, has led the club to eight league titles and four Champions League titles. He is the team’s all-time scoring leader (507 goals in 583 games). And his game-winning goal over Real Madrid in the closing seconds of the last El Clasico on April 23 in Madrid was breathtaking.
That 3-2 Barca victory was the latest memorable El Clasico moment, and the drama often includes Messi and/or Ronaldo.
“If you are a hard-core Lionel Messi fan, it seems by definition you hate Cristiano Ronaldo,” said ESPN analyst Alejandro Moreno. “And, if you are a Cristiano Ronaldo fan, by definition you hate Lionel Messi. If they had been by themselves in one era, they would be considered the greatest player of their era by a long margin. Because they both exist at the same time, it allows us to see the very best of both players. No doubt the success of one fuels the other.”
The contrast in their personalities and playing styles makes the rivalry intriguing.
“Cristiano Ronaldo is the look-at-me attitude, the persona, the gesturing, the haircut, the abs, the good looks. He’s like, ‘Here I am, I’m big-time,’ ” Moreno said. “His personality is divisive. You think, ‘Oh, this guy is out there all for himself.’ But then you see him deliver in the moments that count the most, and you’re willing to forgive and forget that attitude.
“Lionel Messi, on the other hand is more subdued, but a quiet guy who’s a genius with the ball at his feet. I prefer to watch Messi play. Without taking anything away from Ronaldo, there is a certain magic to what Messi does that I connect with more than Ronaldo’s power and explosiveness.”
Will they duel on Saturday? Time will tell.
Miami Herald sportswriter Adam H. Beasley contributed to this report.