- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2017

LANDOVER — An ocean of cell phones waved and flashed in the air Tuesday night as one of the best players in the world stepped onto the grass of FedEx Field. Each person in attendance rose to get a glimpse, and soon the chants started. But this night, the crowd wasn’t calling for Kirk Cousins, Ryan Kerrigan or even Tom Brady.

The fans at FedEx were going nuts for Lionel Messi — one of the most famous soccer stars in the world.

Messi and the rest of Barcelona took the practice field Tuesday ahead of Wednesday’s 7:30 p.m. exhibition game against Manchester United, and for a lot of fans, seeing a generational talent like Messi was priceless.

“It’s not often you can see the superstars in soccer,” said Kurtis Mensah, who paid $58 for two tickets to bring his nine-year-old son Jefferson to get a glimpse of Messi upclose. “This is an opportunity for us to enjoy these players. I haven’t seen Messi before.”

Mensah and his son were hardly alone. An estimated 7,000 people gathered and filled a section of the stadium’s lower bowl to watch practice.

The world’s best soccer clubs, always keen on gaining a foothold in the United States, have been steadily growing an American fan base. This year marked the fifth annual International Champions Cup, which takes premier teams from around the world and has them play abroad.

For the clubs, they’re essentially preseason matches before the regular season starts. But the interest is real. Barcelona and Juventus sold out MetLife Stadium — a capacity of 80,000 — on Saturday in New Jersey. A sellout is also expected Wednesday and the cheapest ticket available on secondary markets like StubHub starts at $140.

There were plenty of people on-hand who had tickets for the practice session and Wednesday’s game.

Morgan Irwin, 22, treated herself to a gift, shelling out $240 for two tickets to see Barcelona against Manchester United for her birthday. She also paid $20 per ticket to see Barcelona practice.

She said she has been hooked since she took up soccer as a kid and became fascinated with Barcelona after her youth coach dubbed their team “the Barcelona girls.” The nickname connected Irwin to the actual team, spawning another diehard fan who has never having lived in Spain.

“I saw Barcelona and Chelsea play two years ago (at FedEx), but Messi didn’t play that game,” Irwin said. “They were on holiday, so the fact that everyone is here today, and I actually don’t have to fly to Spain, it’s kind of amazing.”

Youth soccer has clearly been a stepping stone for the sport in the United States. Charlie Keeley, 24, played soccer at Wofford College and so his appreciation for the game is understandable.

Still, Keeley didn’t have interest in forking over top dollar for tickets. Instead, he wanted to appreciate the craft of Messi and Barcelona up close.

“This is probably better than going to the actual game,” Keeley said. “You can see it closer and see what they actually do everyday than just the game. … I’ll never be able to see these guys again.”

The amount of playing time Messi and other top players get remain to be seen. Since the exhibitions are preseason games, fans shouldn’t expect heavy minutes — if the stars make an appearance at all.

Still, there’s plenty of drama surrounding the players — even if some of it is happening off the field. On Tuesday, Barcelona stars Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano met with the media and questioners zeroed in the whether Neymar will leave Barcelona for the Paris Saint-Germain, a premier team in France.

Neymar, who was ranked by Forbes at the 18th highest-earning athlete in 2017, is only 25 and PSG is rumored to be willing to pay as much as $458 million for him, which factors in a transfer fee and contract.

Like Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors last summer, the sports world is frantic over whether Neymar will actually leave.

Pique, in a move made popular by NBA stars, used his Instagram days earlier to upload a picture of him and Neymar with the caption, “he’s staying.” It was cryptic enough to drum up discussion. If Neymar leaves, it would be the equivalent of Kevin Durant leaving to the Warriors, a superteam, to go play for another team.

“I prefer to have a superteam because I play in it,” Pique said.

In this sport, too, drama and skill dominates the game. For a night, fans at FedEx Field will be able to see it.

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