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11 December 2023

'It hurts in the depths of my soul' - Messi absence a disaster for his fanatical fans


Barcelona will miss Lionel Messi on Sunday - his goals, his dribbles, his presence as much as anything - but the angst will be gone with the help of three weeks' rest and a sling.

For the fans that came to see him, not the match or the teams, but him, the disappointment will be harder to shake.

This will be the first Clasico without either Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo since December 2007, when Julio Baptista's winner was the difference in a 1-0 win for Real Madrid.

There have been 35 games between them since. Messi has lit up more than a few - the hat-trick in 2007, the two free-kicks, and that run, leaving five Madrid players for dead, Sergio Ramos twice.

In a stall on Carrer d'Aristides Maillol, lining the western edge of Camp Nou, a vendor stands under a collection of red and yellow scarves, behind him pinned up shirts with Messi, 10, on their backs.

"We will sell Messi shirts here even 20 years after he retires," he says. "Nothing will change on Sunday." What does a Clasico mean without Messi? "No hay". "There isn't one".

Which isn't true of course. It was 1902 when Barcelona first appeared in Madrid for the semi-final of the Copa Coronacion. There have been 199 of them without Messi and there will be many more after he has gone.

But in this current era, this fixture, at Camp Nou, is about him more than anyone else. Everyone wants to witness Messi once, still more on the biggest stage.

When he stayed down clutching his broken right arm against Sevilla last weekend, it was a blow for Barca but a blow too for the thousands that thought they were eight days away.

More than 8,000 kilometres away in Whitehorse, northern Canada, Barcelona fan Myles was one of those watching. He has 'MESSI' as his car number plate. His six years supporting means he has only ever known the club with Messi in it.

"I consider myself a big Barca fan but I have a special obsession with Messi," he says.

Myles and his girlfriend paid 500 euros each for tickets to this Clasico. Their 19-hour flights, each way, cost a combined 1600 Canadian dollars.

"To say I was shell-shocked when he got injured is an understatement," Myles says. It is not about the money. "In a scenario where it was guaranteed Messi would play I would have paid north of 2000 dollars for tickets."

The sense of time running out increases the stakes for these far-away fans. Messi turned 31 in June and this next meeting is a sneak peak into the future. Not long away, supporters will wonder if every Clasico could be his last.

Lucas is from Texas, celebrating his 10-year wedding anniversary in Spain. He will go alone to the Camp Nou on Sunday, where he has shelled out 1400 US dollars on a VIP ticket.

"I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me," Lucas said. "I thought it could be my first, and likely only time, watching Messi play."

There are the family connections too, like Marta and her brother Javier, who have flown over from Tenerife, and have been Barcelona fans since they were children.

"We support Barca but we love Messi," Marta said. "Our hope has always been to see Barca at the Camp Nou but even more exciting was to see the best player in history. The injury against Sevilla left us so disappointed."

And those that came out of national pride like Laucha, who has travelled from Viedma in Argentina. "I am a Boca Juniors fan and the expense was considerable, but Messi is Messi," she said. "This opportunity will probably not come again for me. It hurts in the depths of my soul."

As the biggest teams are increasingly watched more on screens than from stands, by supporters with no tangible link to their cities, the most recognisable players are becoming just as iconic as their clubs.

When one website advertised tickets on Twitter for last weekend's game between Barca and Sevilla, the bait was catching Messi in full flow. "Sevilla are one of #Messi's favourite victims," it read.

Madrid are too. He has 26 goals in 38 games against them, but not on Sunday. For his opponents, relief. For some of his fans, regret, and the hope the chance will come round again.