They came to see the stars.
Fans spent thousands of dollars traveling to South Florida for the beautiful game’s brightest lights: Lionel Messi, Neymar, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo .... well, forget about that last one.
“I was in shock,” said 15-year-old Emiliano Tijerina, of Texas, after official word came down that Ronaldo wouldn’t play in Miami. His crisp, white jersey bore the star’s heavenly number, seven.
Messi showed up to this exhibition version of el Clásico, the clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s iconic soccer match. Ronaldo didn’t. Real’s Portuguese star was on short rest, having played at the FIFA Confederations Cup and due to face tax-evasion charges in a Spanish court Monday.
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“It was a lot of money!” exclaimed Rossana Villalobos, who flew with her family of four from Washington, D.C., enticed by the prospect of Ronaldo.
Game tickets cost $2,000 in total, never mind the travel, she said.
Real is led by brash, strapping attacker Ronaldo; Barcelona by pint-sized dynamo Messi, nicknamed la Pulga, “the Flea.”
At least, the sublime Messi eased bruised feelings.
“Messi, he’s not from planet Earth,” said Juan Espejo, a Miami Lakes photographer enjoying a thick Oliva cigar outside Hard Rock Stadium.
Ronaldo or no, for many el Clásico was unmissable, even at $500 for tickets — and that passed as a deal — $60 for parking and $12 for chicken tenders (“cooked right,” one fan said.)
“Was it worth it? For Madrid-Barca? Are you kidding?” Francisco Herrera shouted over the din of summer’s inescapable hit Despacito and vendors hawking cerveza.
He and his party of six drove 11 hours from Charlotte. Some came from even further.
A die-hard Barcelona fan, Ricardo Cortez flew to Miami from Lima. The absence of rival Ronaldo hardly broke his heart.
“He’s selfish,” Cortez said. “Too arrogant.”
Not everyone is as familiar with Ronaldo. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez referred to him as “Rolando” twice in a recent Herald interview. One fan laughed at the story.
“Even if you’re not a soccer fan, you know who Ronaldo is,” said Arbise González, a Miami resident.
Love him or hate him, signing a brand-name star like Ronaldo could be crucial for Miami’s long-hoped for MLS franchise, said Neil W. Blackmon, who runs a popular soccer blog called the Yanks are Coming.
“This is an event town,” Blackmon said. “There’s no question Ronaldo enjoys the spotlight and I think Miami would embrace that.”
But where was the team’s public face, former Real star and England captain David Beckham? Surely he’d glad hands, slap backs and win headlines at Miami’s biggest-ever soccer game?
Alas, according to team spokesman Aaron Gordon, he was on vacation.
“With his crazy schedule,” Gordon said, “it’s really the only time of year he’s able to travel with the kids.”