So, I woke up Saturday morning, went for a run and was getting ready to crack open my first brew to do some day drinking and go tailgate at Soldier Field for the "Messi & Friends" charity game featuring the world's greatest player along with Thierry Henry and Carlos Bocanegra among other international stars and somehow four of my former teammates. I was super excited to go to this event, had some buddies on their way over for a solid 5 hours of pre gaming on tap. Then, I received a phone call from my former coach at Northwestern, Tim Lenahan (who was coaching one of the teams) around 1:00 PM.
He slow-played the phone call asking me if I was going to the game and I responded by saying, "Yes, I'm going, don't have tickets yet, just going to wing it and go tailgate and get tickets from a scalper". Then he was like, "how about this, bring your boots and get to the Hyatt downtown by 3". I was a bit taken back and didn't really believe him. After all, I don't play soccer anymore. I haven't played a competitive game of soccer since being eliminated by Penn State in the 2010 Big Ten Tournament. My main athletic competition now is Sunday Beer League Kickball...which my two roommates (Pat Gibson & some guy named Matt Eliason - more on him later) and I dominate I might add, but not quite the best preparation to play against the world's best. I sit behind a desk for 8 hours a day analyzing marketing data.
Now, I was about to suit up against Lionel Messi on ESPN? I wasn't too concerned because the way Coach Lenahan phrased it in the phone call, he made it seem like I would just be like an injury replacement and most likely not play at all. I was cool with that, saved me the $50 ticket I was about to buy and upgraded my seats significantly.
Anyway, after the call I started scrambling for my soccer cleats and shin guards at my apartment. I found my cleats which were my team issued shoes from my last year playing at NU, but they were about to rip open at the toe so I asked Eli if I could borrow a pair, but his extra were missing one of the cleats on the bottom so had to go with the busted up ones and then realized I didn't own shinguards anymore so was hoping they wouldn't notice. After that series of events it was off to the hotel, where we arrived to see tons of Barcelona/Argentina fans littered throughout the hotel lobby and outside trying to catch a glimpse of the actual stars and some of the fans came up to us as well. We had to wait around in the lobby a bit before we were told to go wait in a back room where some of the stars such as Florent Malouda, Julio Cesar and Bocanegra along with some other VIP people were. We were in there for a while until it was time to board the bus where we went through the back with a tunnel of fans giving high fives and taking pictures. All the players were on the bus except for Messi. Apparently, he's like the best player in the world or something and gets his own personal ride to the stadium.
We arrived to the stadium and the four late additions- Oliver Kupe, Brad Napper, Geoff Fallon and me were notified which teams we would be on. Kupe and I on The World with Eliason, Dave Roth, Gerardo Alvarez and Brandon Medina and Napper and Fallon on Team Messi with Mark Blades and Tommy Tombridge. I went into The World team locker room where everyone's jerseys were laid out in lockers except for mine and Kupe's. Everybody got dressed then Fabio Capello, former Italian international and England national team coach, current Russian national team coach gave the line-up and headed out to the field. Except Kupe and I still didn't have uniforms so we stayed back in the locker room waiting to hear back from an event organizer if there even were any extra jerseys. The event organizer never came back so Kupe and I started looking around and just saw a box lying there, opened it and luckily, there were extra kits in it. We got dressed and ran through the tunnel to the field where we could not believe as people stood up and cheered loudly for us two. They must've not realized we were "fake" players, but it was an awesome adrenaline rush.
We warmed up for about 20 minutes where I was knocking the ball around trying to remember how to play soccer, really enjoying the moment though, just jogging and passing the ball looking up at all the people in the stands and still thinking that would basically be the extent of my soccer-playing for the day other than maybe a late cameo to allow a star to have a curtain call.
Once the game started, it was surreal to just be sitting on the bench just in awe with the quality of Messi and co. up close and thinking how crazy it was that Blades and Tombridge (GK) were out there with Messi's team and Eliason and Roth starting for The World Team. The first real action of the game was a good shot by Eliason saved by Tombridge. I thought wow, Eli almost scored, how sick would that be if he actually did as Eli and I had talked in the days leading up to the game how ridiculous it would be if he somehow scored in Messi's game and maybe got on SportsCenter. It all seemed like a pipe dream when we were talking about it at the time.
Then, 29 minutes into the game my roommate's life changed from normal, recent college grad with a job in corporate finance to MATT ELIASON, world soccer hero and viral sensation.
Few things that have happened since the amateur player's bike heard around the world:
- #1 on SportsCenter Top 10
- Tweeted about by Darren Rovell, Seth Meyers, Grant Wahl, Mark Titus & Rodger Sherman
- 37 new friend requests on Facebook after the game and mobbed by fans at the hotel (maybe it really should have been Eliason and Friends after all)
- Has an IN-STUDIO interview with ABC 7 News Monday
- 459,000 views on the YouTube clip in the first 24 hours
- Possible revived professional soccer dream
Oh wait, something else from the second half made the SportsCenter Top 10 as well.
At halftime, Coach Lenahan came up to me and said I would be starting at center back in the second half next to my favorite player growing up and long time U.S. National Team Captain, Carlos Bocanegra. Let's just say I didn't have the fairy tale ending as we unite, pitch a shutout against Team Messi and become BFFL.
When coach told me I'd be starting it was kind of like "Oh boy, this is not the 5 minute cameo I had in mind, I am going to have to defend Messi for 45 minutes. I am now becoming the first person in history planning on tailgating in the parking lot and ending up in between the white lines at Soldier Field"
The rest of the story, you may have seen on SportsCenter.
The ball is played over the top with Messi running on. I see Messi with the ball and start sprinting back at an angle to try and cut off his path to goal, I get back to the point where I think I may have a last ditch chance to slide and block the greatest in the game's shot. I slide and attempt to block the shot as things are seemingly going a 1,000 miles per hour, while Messi owns the world-class ability to slow the game down with his brilliant skill and soccer mind. So, as I'm sliding, Messi looks down at me says, "Oh, you Silly American" calmly cuts me up and then shoots and scores. That may or may not have been the actual dialogue, but as I am lying on the ground thats when it hit me that I was actually playing in this game, not in the stands, and that I had just gotten posterized by Messi on national TV. Sure looked like he was about to shoot to me...Hopefully, I'll get the call in to "LeBron and Friends" so I can get dunked on by him. That's next on the bucket list of infamy.
In the end, it was an incredible experience and something I'll remember for the rest of my life. I played against Messi and got burnt badly by the best player in the world making the SportsCenter Top 10 in the process. Pretty Cool.