Messi, Inter Miami wilt under pressure as Monterrey advances in Concacaf Champions Cup

MONTERREY, Mexico — Wherever Lionel Messi goes, chaos follows. Fans will camp outside hotels for hours just to catch a glimpse of the Argentine forward, while reporters line up cameras to ensure an endless live feed of his movements for those watching at home.

It was no different when Inter Miami CF touched down in Mexico on Tuesday for their first competitive match outside of the United States and Canada, a Concacaf Champions Cup quarterfinal second-leg tie against Monterrey. Though it ended in a 3-1 Miami defeat (5-2 on aggregate) and a quarterfinal exit at the hands of the five-time champions, the spectacle will live long in the memory.

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Friction between the two clubs and fan bases was expected after the first leg at Chase Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which Monterrey had won 2-1. Supporters of the club known as Rayados (“The Striped-Ones”) — took over Miami’s stadium as the MLS had failed to sell out. At full-time, Messi and head coach Gerardo Martino approached the referee to complain about certain calls, which in turn prompted Rayados‘ staff to retaliate. “Both [Messi and Martino] were out of line,” Monterrey assistant coach Nico Sanchez said in a leaked voice note. “Something that if we had done, they would’ve sent us to hell.”

A source explained to ESPN that Messi, who sat out the first game with a hamstring injury, angrily approached the Monterrey locker room. Consequently, Monterrey filed a complaint to Concacaf, with Miami fined “an undisclosed amount for lack of security in their stadium.”

The feud sparked a rivalry stronger than anyone could’ve expected. Ahead of Tuesday’s arrival, local television stations tracked the Inter Miami team plane, showing footage of the flight midair during the morning news. Reporters covered various exits of Monterrey’s General Mariano Escobedo international airport in the hope of getting the perfect shot of Messi’s arrival. Sections of Diego Rivera Avenue, which leads up to the team’s Quinta Real hotel, were closed off completely to accommodate security, with traffic redirected and bus schedules impacted. The entrance of the hotel was difficult to reach: security demanded proof of a hotel reservation just to enter the walkway into the lobby.

Even the national guard found themselves stationed outside the hotel for precaution as over 150 fans lined up behind the rails across the street, standing under the sun on a 97-degree day.

The entire city took extra safety measures — Monterrey’s media manager confirmed there would be an increased security presence of around 1,400 staff, up from 800 at a regular game.

While plenty of people waved at the Inter Miami team bus as it pulled into the hotel, there were several who flipped the players off with both hands. A child carried a sign that read “Without help, Messi,” referring to the idea that referees give Inter Miami preferable treatment. Another carried a flag with the words “Corrupc10n Mafia” with the World Cup trophy replacing the I in “Mafia,” and a picture of Messi on the end.

Tensions heightened once inside the Estadio BBVA, spurred on by Monterrey head coach Fernando Ortiz. “We are Monterrey and we are at home,” he said at the prematch news conference on Tuesday. “Let Messi be the one to worry about us.”

Ahead of Wednesday’s game, Rayados jerseys began to fill the stadium as soon as the doors opened at 6:00 p.m. and suddenly, Ortiz’s words rang true. The stadium felt as one against Inter Miami, with fans waving blue-and-white flags and chants echoed around the BBVA. “A la bio, a la bao, a la bim bom ba, Monterrey, Monterrey, ra ra ra …” on repeat.

Once the team’s anthem played, the cheers felt deafening. An emphatic “Monterrey, arriba Monterrey” in perfect unison could be heard, while a Game of Thrones-themed tifo rose and a light show enthralled. Then, a stadium-wide mural.

When the announcer began reading the visitor’s starting XI, fans redirected their attention to booing every player, the noise intensifying with each name before Messi. Any cheers the Argentine could’ve received were immediately drowned out.

For the first time since Messi’s arrival, the Herons failed to receive a positive reception or find comfort in Messi-related signage dotted around the ground. Every time the forward touched the ball, fans resumed the intense booing until a Monterrey player could regain possession. When Messi missed a shot at goal, the stadium would turn up the volume.

“Break Messi,” shouted an individual seated to the left of the press box, while another added: “Get the ball, he can’t take it.”

The first bit of silence inside the stadium came moments before Brandon Vázquez scored the first of the night on 31 minutes, giving Monterrey the lead. Cheering subsided as fans concentrated on the play unfolding, before exploding into a frenzy when the ball touched the back of the net.

“Monterrey, Monterrey, Monterrey!” Then, right on cue, the booing returned.

If the first goal gave fans another reason to cheer, the second strike on 58 minutes provided confidence — and relief — that this would be Monterrey’s night. Germán Berterame‘s goal lifted the spectators from their seats, waving their thousands of flags in the air. A collective “Ole, Ole, Ole!” soon took over.

Messi was presented a chance to equalize after being fouled just steps outside the box, setting the scene for the perfect free kick. The taunting began as soon as the forward placed the ball, but once he missed the opportunity, the booing coupled with chants of “Messi no puede” (“Messi can not”).

Jesús Gallardo added a third for Monterrey six minutes to put the tie beyond doubt, before a late goal from Diego Gómez on 85 minutes gave the U.S. team some consolation. One brave fan in section 138 stood up to celebrate the goal by lifting Inter Miami’s black-and-pink scarf before being quickly met with several “sit down, already” shouts.

“We were kind of prepared for this, to be honest with you,” Inter Miami’s Julian Gressel said after the game. “This was a beautiful atmosphere, great stadium, great fans. I guess a good team, and these are the nights you want to play. You want to be with the best in the best competitions.

“Unfortunately it didn’t go the way we wanted to. But it’s an away game, you expect that. You’re not getting cheered for every time, this is only something that happens in a few stadiums with Leo being the main guy, but tonight wasn’t something that we didn’t expect. It was really frustrating in terms of the result but great atmosphere and credit to Monterrey for creating this.”

The MLS darlings struggled under the overwhelming pressure on and off the field. Miami now walks away eliminated from the quarterfinals by a 5-2 aggregate score, while Monterrey rides on to the semis backed by one of the most loyal fan bases in Concacaf.

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