A Coincidence of Time and Place: How I almost met Lionel Messi

By Owen Mason-Hill

A long line builds outside of Paris Saint-Germain’s store after Lionel Messi signed a contract with the club. Courtesy of Owen Mason-Hill

The strength of the bond between Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona cannot be overstated. He joined the team when he was just 13, and has led the club to the pinnacle of domestic and international soccer. When he recently became a free agent on July 1, it scarcely made the news. It was his complete intention to rejoin Barcelona, taking a pay cut so that the team could be rebuilt around him. Messi is 34, with the possibility of two or three contract extensions left in his career. 

 

When Messi became a free agent, I was just about to start my grand European adventure. Like many students, I enrolled in Middlebury with the hope of utilizing their vast network of schools abroad to spend a semester in another country. And when it came time for me to apply to these schools and programs, I did just that. I was set to arrive in Copenhagen in the fall of 2020, but of course the world had other plans. After deferring to the spring 2021 semester, I withdrew my application, realizing that it wasn’t worth the eight hour flight and the financial burden to sit in a room, staring out my window at an unavailable outside world. Instead of semesters filled with new experiences, foods and languages, I returned to campus for two semesters of online courses, clubs and friends.  

 

After spending two weeks alone in Copenhagen, gorging myself on fried foods and art museums, I flew to Paris for the remainder of my summer abroad.

One day in Paris, I was sitting in my rented apartment late at night, watching the day’s Olympic events and medals recapped on the small television that sat in the living room. I had just purchased tickets to a Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) soccer match on a whim. They were $30, and as far back in the stadium as you could go. And I was going to see Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, Messi’s former teammate, and Kylian Mbappé Lottin, a top star in world soccer, pummel whichever team was unfortunate enough to face-off against the Parisian juggernauts. Their season home opener was just days away, giving me enough time to see them play before I had to board the eight-hour flight home. 

 

I picked up my phone and scrolled through Instagram to kill some time before I could go to bed at a reasonably late hour. Just after 9 p.m., I saw a post about Messi pop into my feed. He had left Barcelona without a contract renewal. I feverishly went to the Twitter page of Fabrizio Romano, the world’s leading soccer transfer reporter. He had confirmed it: Messi was leaving Barcelona. I was shocked, stunned, and energized, like I had downed two espressos. I wanted to tell someone about it — shock like this needs to be shared — but there was no one. I was alone in a foreign country, with no local friends or family. I texted my brother, who was still asleep due to his near nocturnal sleep schedule, but it didn’t satiate the urge I had to share the news. I needed to tell someone. So I tested how it sounded out loud. “Messi is leaving Barcelona,” I said to my empty apartment. I wanted to run out in the streets and talk with strangers, to see how they felt, but it was night, and I scarcely spoke their language enough to convey the news. 

 

I spent the night flipping through the rolodex of teams that both wanted and — more importantly — could afford to sign Messi. By the time I woke up, PSG had extended an offer. Not only that, they were Messi’s first choice. My eyes shot open as I came to the realization that I might have bought the cheapest tickets ever to see Messi play. 

 

Two days later, I was heading to the airport to pick up my girlfriend from her arriving flight, as she would spend the last week with me in Paris before we both returned home. After leaving the airport, my feed was flooded with pictures of  hoards of fans just yards from where I had been. They were at the airport to see Messi. He had just flown in from Spain to a hero’s welcome. Hundreds of Parisians flocked to the airport to catch a glimpse of the man who would bring fame and glory to their team and, for this week, my team.

 

Before the match, I wanted to get a real Messi PSG jersey. I thought it was momentous to be in Paris when the world’s greatest soccer player joined the local team, the kind of story I’d tell my grandkids about. So I ventured to the PSG store on the Champs-Élysées. Before I even rounded the corner to the correct block, a father and son, in matching navy-blue jerseys, passed by. I swiveled to see “Messi” printed across the back. One out of every ten people walking along the Champs-Élysées that day wore a Messi jersey. It was incredible. I had to wait over an hour just to get inside the store it was a Black-Friday-like rush to grab each and every Messi jersey the store could print. 

 

Messi didn’t play in the match I attended; he was understandably taking time to adjust to his new life in a new country before he was ready to make his debut. When we arrived, however, they were giving a special presentation of all the year’s new signings. After each one was presented, the anticipation built until finally the Argentine stepped foot onto the field. A hauntingly loud chant of “Messi. Messi. Messi.” echoed through the stadium. It was followed by an equally spirited chant of “Ici c’est Paris” (This is Paris). 

 

It was the first time in over a year that it mattered where I was. In a year that was remote, when you could be a student or a friend from anywhere in the world, it never mattered where I set up my computer. I’ll always remember the time that I was in Paris when the world’s best decided to lace up his boots for this city. It felt like it was my city too.