Greg Cote

Cristiano Ronaldo missed El Clasico Miami, and one heck of a game

Players arrive for “El Clasico Miami'' Barcelona-Real Madrid match as part of the International Champions Cup at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, July 29, 2017.
Players arrive for “El Clasico Miami'' Barcelona-Real Madrid match as part of the International Champions Cup at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Saturday, July 29, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

He could have been here.

He should have been here.

Oh, and by the way, he missed a heck of a game.

Real Madrid superstar Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence from Saturday’s El Clasico Miami at Hard Rock Stadium was glaring. He was the elephant not in the room. And he was AWOL, a no-show without much real cause.

Barcelona and Real Madrid put on a scintillating show even without him, though, like you knew they would, the sporting world’s two greatest adversaries filling the Dolphins’ home stadium for a rivalry bigger than any one player. Barcelona won 3-2, led by Lionel Messi’s early goal, in a match that drew a capacity-plus 66,014 fans and made history as the first El Clasico played in the United States of 235 overall ever played and only the second not played on Spanish soil.

It still was less than it might have been, though. You imagined Ronaldo and Barca’s Lionel Messi, the planet’s two greatest soccer maestros and gifted goal scorers, trading magic in sports’ ultimate personal duel of one-upmanship. You imagined it because you were promised it. It is what you thought you were paying for.

South Florida was assured when this match was minted that both clubs would send their full teams. Photos of Messi and Ronaldo adorned advertising, including roadside billboards promoting the match and promoting ticket sales. Even after Ronaldo did not accompany Real on its team flight to America, International Champions Cup officials continued to profess expectations and hope that he’d be here for Saturday’s game. ICC founder Stephen Ross, the Dolphins owner, even offered to send his private jet to pick him up and deliver him back home.

Ronaldo (call him No-naldo) wasn’t interested.

And so we were promised steak and lobster only to hear the waiter tell us the lobster ran out. It was Marino vs. Montana, back in the day … only one of them decided to sit out and rest.

Ronaldo strung Miami along until the very end before deciding it was OK to cheat fans who had paid at least $200 per ticket and more often many times more. Even parking for Saturday’s match was an outrageous $60. (Seriously? If I pay 60 bucks to park my car, I expect it to be washed and detailed.)

I know all of Ronaldo’s excuses. He led his national team, Portugal, deep into the recent FIFA Confederations Cup, meaning less rest time. He has a Monday court date in Spain related to tax-fraud charges. Somehow, though, he mustered enough time and energy to travel to China and Singapore for promotional appearances. And he’d been assured Ross’ jet would have him back in Spain on Sunday.

None of it was enough to pry Ronaldo off his yacht. A sea of thousands of No. 7 Ronaldo jerseys were seen here, but not the one man who should have been wearing one.

Barcelona’s Messi — every bit as big a star — was at Bayfront Park in broiling heat the other day, tossing out free jerseys to fans, signing autographs, speaking to into a microphone to supporters. Where were you, Ronaldo?

But enough about the famous no-show.

He missed a fireworks show of a game, a scintillating spectacle — even without him the biggest soccer game ever played in Miami

The match had the added drama of perhaps being the last in a Barcelona jersey for the rising star Neymar, who reportedly will likely soon move on to French power Paris Saint-Germain on a record $250 million transfer fee.

Anticlimactically, Neymar left Saturday’s match just two minutes in after falling without contact, but he would soon return.

In the moments in between, playing with 10 men, Barcelona banged to a 1-0 lead on vintage Messi magic. The compact assassin glided goal-ward with the ball on his right foot, stuttered, shifted to his left foot and from the center of the box delivered a net-rattling goal into the upper-right corner.

“Mes-si! Mes-si!” chanted his adoring masses among a crowd that seemed slightly to favor Barcelona.

Quickly Ivan Rakitic made it 2-nil, Barca, in the seventh minute, and Madrid faithful sagged. But not for long!

Goals by Real’s Mateo Kovacic in the 14th minute and Marco Asenio in the 36th sent the match all square into halftime.

Barcelona roared back up 3-2 in the 50th minute when Gerard Pique converted a cross from Neymar off a set set piece, the final score a fair one considering Barca never trailed, had 14 shots inside the box and controlled overall possession 63 percent.

No more goals would follow, but myriad chances peppered the balance of the game on a night of end to end action and unrelenting goalkeeper anxiety.

“We started bad and let up too many easy goals,” Real Madrid defender Manu said. “That’s not our game.”

Yes, this was a glorified exhibition even flying under the ICC banner, a preseason game for Spain’s coming La Liga season. You’d hardly call it a “friendly,” though. Not when it’s El Clasico. That is why these teams’ Friday practice drew 35,000 fans. That is why this game filled Hard Rock on Saturday in a way the Dolphins seldom do, both in number of fans and passion. That is why the match was a magnet for celebrities ranging from Drake to Serena Williams to Ndamukong Suh to Carmelo Anthony to Nicki Minaj.

That is why Ronaldo should have been here.

The game more than lived up to billing, even with its missing piece. The attendance was capacity-plus, standing-room only. It might even have made a run at the state-record largest soccer crowd in Florida — 73,429 for a 2014 Brazil-Colombia friendly here — except the stadium’s capacity was reduced by nearly 10,000 seats in the redesign.

It was, in a real way, the exclamation point on Joe Robbie’s 1980s dream when he built his stadium with international soccer very much in mind — a dream Ross carried forth in his stadium makeover.

“He would have been so excited about this,” said Tim Robbie of his late father.

Ross, though obviously disappointed Ronaldo did not make it, still could regard the week a success.

“This what Americans want — to see the best,” Ross said. “And South Florida is such an ‘event’ place. There’s no better place to have this. Every year we want to create this week.”

Who knows, should Real Madrid ever be back in Miami, maybe Ronaldo might even deign to show up.

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