Yes, the ticket prices were unusually high for the El Clasico Miami clash of Spanish archrivals Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. And yes, fans certainly would have enjoyed seeing Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, who chose to skip the game.
But the sellout crowd of 66,014 at Hard Rock Stadium didn’t seem to care once the entertaining, action-packed game got going Saturday night.
The fans — who included Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Draymond Green, Drake and 40 Miami Dolphins — got to see plenty of scoring, including a scintillating goal from Barcelona icon Lionel Messi in the opening minutes and exciting playmaking from Neymar that led to Barca’s 3-2 victory.
Although it was officially an exhibition, the intensity on the field (and in the stands) proved that there is nothing “friendly” when these two teams get together. It got so testy in the second half that Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic got into it with referee Jair Marrufo on a questionable call.
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It was just the second time in history the rivals played each other away from Spanish soil, and both teams left most of their starters in well into the second half.
Messi and Luis Suarez played 63 minutes and Neymar, who may have been playing his final game in a Barca jersey, didn’t go out until the 72nd minute. The crowd chanted “Me-ssi! Me-ssi!” as the bearded star left the game. Fans flew in from more than 50 countries for the spectacle and paid between $240 to $4,500 for tickets. A crowd of 35,700 showed up Friday night and paid $20 to watch the two teams practice.
“The support of the crowd was a perfect 10,” said Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane, whose team lost all three matches on its U.S. tour.
“We’re tired because this is just the preseason, but it was a very attractive game for the fans, there were a lot of goals scored, and we’re very happy with the victory,” said Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets. “The level of our play has improved with each game, and we go home happy.”
After the game, Neymar and Messi posed for photos with some celebrity fans outside the locker room, and were then whisked away to the team bus without stopping for interviews.
The night’s drama started almost immediately after the opening whistle. Barcelona’s Brazilian star forward Neymar, who is rumored to be leaving for Paris Saint-Germain in a $250 million transfer, slid making a pass 57 seconds into the game, dropped to the ground, and you could almost hear the gasps coming from Paris.
Neymar went to the bench for a few minutes, and in the meantime, Messi dribbled the ball past Real Madrid’s Luca Modric, cut into the box and his shot deflected off Raphael Varane into the net to give Barcelona a 1-0 lead in the third minute. Four minutes later, Neymar crossed the ball to Suarez, who connected with Rakitic, who knocked it past Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic made it 2-1 seven minutes later with a shot to the low far post, and tied it up in the 36th minute on a goal by Marco Asensio, filling in for Ronaldo. Barcelona got the winning goal from Gerard Pique in the 50th minute on a perfectly-centered free kick from Neymar. Barca goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen preserved the victory with a few late saves.
“The results are a reflection of how we play, generating plays, controlling the game,” said Barcelona’s newly-hired coach Ernesto Valverde, who was experiencing his first Clasico. “To win, we have to concentrate on our game.”
Zidane was disappointed his team allowed two quick goals, and said it was difficult to fully recover.
“We let in too many easy balls, and that’s not our game,” Zidane said. “The results were not exactly what we hoped. It does hurt. We don’t like to lose. But the important thing is that we continue to prepare and improve for the start of the season.”
The teams meet again in the Spanish Super Cup in Aug. 13.
Will Neymar still be with the team? That remains to be seen.
“I don’t want to speculate,” Valverde said. “I see him in the same place I have seen him the past few days — on the pitch with us.”