WASHINGTON — Pink is always in style in the D.C. springtime. On this particular Saturday, the cherry blossoms were in good company.

On the sunny trek to Audi Field, it seemed every other person was wearing a pink No. 10 jersey, the kit of Inter Miami’s star midfielder, Lionel Messi. For those without one, you could buy a genuine-ish replica for $50 — maybe $40 for astute hagglers. There were Messi bucket hats for sale. Messi ballcaps. Posters, paintings and stuffed dolls of Messi.

Everything Messi, except for the man himself.

What was poised to be the biggest soccer event of the year in the DMV wound up being a letdown. The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner who has become the latest MLS import propping up U.S. soccer missed Inter Miami’s only visit to D.C. with a right hamstring injury. To add to the sting of the headliner’s absence, neither Luis Suárez nor Jordi Alba — two other former Barcelona stars who took their talents to South Beach — was in the starting 11.

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It’s a little like shelling out to see Beyoncé at Coachella, only to learn that Beyoncé can’t perform — and Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish are shortening their sets, too.

Like Coachella, people were paying big bucks for the Messi Show. Wouldn’t you? To see perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time?

Omely Marte isn’t a huge soccer fan, but her husband, Jose Salinas, is. He’s followed Barcelona for two decades, watching nearly every club match Messi has played.

When Marte had the opportunity to buy tickets for Inter Miami-D.C. United on the secondary market for a markup of hundreds of dollars, she knew it was a risk. Salinas initially told her not to splurge for his birthday gift, even though he once suggested they should move to Miami when Messi signed there.

Marte bought them because she knew how much it would mean to him to see a player he’s admired for so long play just a few miles from their Alexandria, Virginia, home.

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How much it would have meant, anyway.

“I’m even getting teary-eyed now just thinking about it,” she told me inside the gates of Audi Field, still wearing a Messi jersey. “I don’t think he wants to let me know how disappointed he is as well, so that I don’t feel as bad.”

Marte and Salinas — and a lot of other folks at the well-filled stadium — still went to the game, but it was partly because they had little recourse to get their money back. Marte researched how much she could have sold the tickets for on Ticketmaster after the news broke that Messi wouldn’t play. The most she could get was 16% of what she paid.

“I was like, ‘This is a joke!’” Marte said.

Other fans who paid premiums wrote to The Banner with similar stories. A couple who paid more than $1,200 for two club-level tickets. A family who spent $1,600 on four tickets and flew in from Houston. A girlfriend who bought a $200 ticket for her boyfriend. A family who paid more than $800 to take their 12-year-old son, a rabid Messi fan, to see his idol.

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“My son is heartbroken,” this last mother, Shannon Simon, wrote. It’s harder to explain to a kid.

There is an inherent risk to buying tickets to sporting events hoping to see the star. Sometimes LeBron James can’t dunk or Shohei Ohtani can’t pitch. Messi’s injury, if legitimate, isn’t his fault.

But there is a difference between other American sports stars and Messi — there is no MLS player, not even Suárez or Alba, who comes close to his class and stature. He is more famous than his peers by orders of magnitude, by far the biggest draw the MLS has going. He is literally the second-most-followed person on Instagram, with more than 501 million followers — more than Kim Kardashian or The Rock.

Messi makes people buy tickets not for the game itself but for the spectacle of his presence — of breathing the same air as a soccer immortal. When he’s not there, it’s simply not the same.

The entire league knows how much meaning Messi brings to its games. One D.C. United ticket holder wrote The Banner that the club used the Inter Miami game as a selling point for season-ticket holders, who saw prices rise for their packages this year. Now D.C. has missed out on Leo twice: once when he joined the league midseason last year after Inter Miami had already visited, and on Saturday when a crowd full of people wearing his pink jersey was filling the stands.

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Ticket buyers who wrote to The Banner said they tried and failed to get refunds. But financial relief isn’t unprecedented. When Messi failed to appear in an Inter Miami game in Hong Kong in February, one of the organizers refunded fans 50% of the cost of tickets, which cost an estimated $5.7 million. It’s hard to see D.C. United and MLS taking that kind of bath, and the people who bought tickets on the secondary market probably would still be out of luck.

Salinas was still happy to see his favorite players from a great Barcelona team — Suárez obligingly scored two goals after subbing in for the second half. But he could see how others might take Messi’s no-show harder and how it might turn off a casual soccer fan from MLS.

“[The league] should be more understanding of what the regular fan is going through when making such a big expense,” Salinas said. “Because the whole idea of bringing Messi to the U.S. is to make soccer bigger. This is not really the way of doing it — charging people so much money for the idea that he’s gonna play, but then being disappointed when he doesn’t.

Added Salinas: “That’s the part of it that sucks.”

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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