"Que es esto?" "What is this," the Argentine reporter asked while pointing a disturbed digit at the beans, rice, and salad that was left at the media buffet.
In one corner were dry cheese tamales and a mostly empty jug of salsa. The reporter's companion with a thin moustache and camera around his neck didn’t comment. Judging by their accents they were from Argentina, a pity the 6,464 miles -- or as they might have preferred, the 10,403 kilometers -- journeyed from Buenos Aires had an arrival too late for the food at the media meal.
Levi’s Stadium did have what passed for Mexican food, but to be fair, nobody came here for the food. They came here for Argentina and its superstar, Lionel Messi. Levi’s Stadium last captured such national attention when the NFL’s Broncos and Panthers competed in the most recent Super Bowl a few months ago.
A sold out crowd of 69,000 applauded loudly when Lionel Messi stood for the national anthem of Argentina, placing his right hand snugly over his heart. Unfortunately, that proved to be the most action that night for Messi, who rode the bench after sustaining an injury in an unfriendly encounter during a friendly match against Honduras.
This isn’t Messi’s first trip to California. A decade ago, at 19, he made the trek when his legs were fresher and his face lacked a beard.
In August 2006, Messi played in front of 92,650 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in a match against Chivas Guadalajara. This was back before events like the ICC and Copa America guaranteed that American fans got to see great soccer teams on tour every summer. The crowd was large then, and Messi wasn’t even the star, as he was overshadowed by Rafa, Henry, Eto'o, and Ronaldhino, whose pass in the 74th minute set up a goal in a 1-1 draw. Messi was an afterthought.
Now a decade later and a few hours drive north, Messi is the star of an event where he doesn’t even play. After every goal, the cameras panned to Messi, now bearded and 28, for every reaction.
The countries of Argentina and Chile may share a 3,200 mile long border, but there was little love displayed between them on the pitch. The first half was emotional, Latin American-style football, with neither team giving much, causing the fans to groan with every missed opportunity. They don’t score that much in Latin American football.
The last sporting event I went to was a horse race at the Golden Gate Fields where I had worked my way through half a bag of sunflower seeds. I bet I could have chewed sunflower seeds in that press box and smoked too. But Levi’s Stadium is nice and carpeted, with posters all over. Instead, I got in line for coffee. I was impressed by a radio reporter from Canal Nueve who held a microphone to his face with one hand and poured himself a coffee with the other, the entire time broadcasting color commentary on-air.
In the second half, Chile began to give ground under Argentine pressure. Every pass was a bit tighter and every missed shot a bit closer.
Ángel Di María, scored in the 51st minute, and a short time later, with the crowd still buzzing, Éver Banega scored in the 58th. On their own merits, the two midfielders are impressive, but combined they made up for Lionel Messi.
Chile scored in stoppage time (90+3), but by then, a few thousand fans had left when it was clear Messi was not going to play. Argentina has a deep, deep roster, and thus, should be considered a favorite to win the tournament, especially after its 2-1 win over Chile.
Chile was the strongest test in its group, and there is a chance that in the quarterfinals, Messi could be back at Levi’s Stadium to play against Mexico or another contender.
After the match, reporters from all over Latin America pressed along a stretch of rope outside the locker room to see if Messi would emerge. A sign nearby warned that reporters who asked for a photo or autograph would have their credentials revoked. This is, after all, the FIFA Copa America Cenetario.
By Joseph Hammond
Contributing Writer for TheDailySportsHerald.com