What’s going on with Lionel Messi? Even at Inter Miami, mystery lingers

Inter Miami forward Lionel Messi, center right, the second half of the U.S. Open Cup final soccer match against the Houston Dynamo watches with his family from a suite Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Lionel Messi watched Inter Miami's U.S. Open Cup final match against Houston from a box. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Drake Callender arrived at Inter Miami’s facility Wednesday unsure whether Lionel Messi would play.

Or at least that’s how Callender tells it. “It was when I walked into the locker room,” Miami’s goalkeeper said when asked how he found out that Messi would miss Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final. “I didn't see his jersey up, and I knew he wouldn't be part of the starting squad.”

Which is somewhat hard to believe, but not implausible. Inter has wrapped Messi’s injury in a veil of secrecy. His status has been uncertain entering three of Miami’s last four games, and the club has never actually specified what body part is bothering him.

The assumption, prior to Wednesday, was that Messi’s injury was minor, and his rest was somewhat precautionary. The Houston Dynamo, Miami’s opponent in the Open Cup final, prepared Monday and Tuesday as if Messi would play, multiple players said. Thousands of fans donned his jersey with a similar expectation.

But then Messi didn’t play. Miami lost, 2-1, to Houston. And head coach Tata Martino was asked to explain.

“It was not prudent for him to play, that was clear,” Martino said in Spanish. “Not even to consider him for a few minutes. Because we'd be running risks.”

And at that moment, concerns spiked.

If there were a time to run risks, it was Wednesday. Martino had said Tuesday that if this were a standard league game, Messi would not play; but it was a final, so there was a chance. The door was open. Everyone expected Messi to walk through it. Ninety minutes before kickoff, hundreds of those jersey wearers congregated on both sides of two barricades, through which the team bus would roll and the GOAT would presumably emerge.

But one after the other, 18 Miami players stepped off the bus, onto the outdoor loading dock, and Messi wasn’t one of them.

You would think, at this point, that Messi’s teammates knew his status. When asked when they found out, defender Serhiy Kryvtsov mentioned “yesterday,” Tuesday — when neither Messi nor Jordi Alba participated in the full team training session. “Their health is more important for our team than today's game,” Kryvtsov said.

Still, though, there was uncertainty. Messi supposedly went through an individual training program Tuesday. Martino, meanwhile, reportedly did not hold a walkthrough featuring the likely starters. He said at his Tuesday news conference that he’d speak with Messi, and wait until Wednesday to make a decision. (Dixon Arroyo, the one other Miami player made available to reporters after Wednesday’s game, did not specify when the players learned that Messi would be out.)

And now, with another game less than 72 hours after Wednesday’s, they will likely wait again.

Martino said at his postgame news conference that, “yes, [Messi] will surely play before the league season ends.” The Argentine coach, with whom Messi has a good rapport, vowed to continue going "game by game, [monitoring] the situation to see at what point the medical department tells us he is in condition to play without running risks.”

Martino did reiterate Tuesday that Messi’s injury would not require surgery. In fact, Martino has largely refrained from calling it an injury at all. He first described it as “fatigue” when Messi exited last week’s game against Toronto after 36 minutes. He then added that the issue is “scar tissue.”

Martino, though, hasn’t confirmed much else. Messi, it seems, is dealing with the remnants of an old right hamstring injury, one which has nagged him periodically throughout his career. But Martino hasn’t said this, nor indicated anything about the nature of the apparent re-aggravation nor the severity.

So, naturally, he has been criticized for his handling of it. He was pressed Tuesday about the secrecy.

“You’re talking about the best player in the world, and I have to divulge something that could modify our opponent’s gameplan. Why give that information if I can keep it to myself?” Martino responded.

He and midfielder Sergio Busquets were also asked about the impact on ticket-buying fans, many of whom paid three- or four-figure sums to come watch Messi play.

“I know that his presence is of interest to people in terms of whether to buy a ticket or not,” Martino acknowledged. “What we want is to try and win the game. You win the game by being better than your opponent, but it’s small details that can make things work better for us.”

Busquets said, in part: “We are not machines or robots, right? We would like to play every game, every minute, not have injuries, not have fatigue. But it's one thing we can't control.”

Messi, by all accounts, would have loved to play on Wednesday. Instead, he sported an all-black outfit and slumped in his field-level chair as his teammates slumped to a defeat. Miami’s unrelenting schedule had already caught up to him, and now seems to be dragging down the entire squad.

“What I saw,” Martino said after the 2-1 loss, “was a team that was spent.”

And now they have a playoff race to resume. They host NYCFC, a direct competitor for the eastern conference's two wild card spots, on Saturday. They go to Chicago for another playoff bubble game next Wednesday.

Martino has likened each match to another final, because Miami must erase a five-point deficit over its last five games to complete an astounding turnaround and reach the postseason. But the man who inspired that turnaround, Messi, is now the man whose health clouds their once-high hopes.

Multiple Miami players stated the obvious after Wednesday's loss: That Messi, the greatest player ever, is important to them. But his availability, Kryvtsov noted, is "a question for the medical staff."