“I just felt empty, like there was a weight on me. Empty inside, but like I was stuck to the ground.”
This is how Benja Cremaschi described the jumble of emotions that plagued him when he pulled into the parking lot of DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, July 11th. It was his first glimpse of Lionel Messi – the greatest player who’s ever lived and his personal idol – in the flesh.
“My brother’s hands wouldn’t stop shaking when he shook hands with him,” Cremaschi said of those unsteady moments before learning about the Secret Messi that all his teammates have come to know. “I was really nervous to meet him, but he’s such a calm guy, a good guy.
“So it was easy to interact with him.”
“I grew up watching Messi play,” added Cremaschi, who lives in the Argentine-heavy barrier island of Key Biscayne near Miami with his mom and dad and large extended Argentine family. “My family follows him and we’ve been fans for as far back as I can remember.”
Benja’s Early Jitters Banished
He means this literally.
It’s worth noting that Messi has been the best player on Planet Earth for nearly every year the 18-year-old Cremaschi has drawn breath. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and World Cup champion scooped his first international prize, the U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands, in 2005 – the year Cremaschi was born.
“The fact that now I’m playing with him, sharing day-to-day life with him is truly a dream,” Cremaschi said. When my family met him, they just couldn’t believe it.”
“I have all his jerseys at home and all those memories of watching him play,” added Cremaschi, who scored the winning penalty in the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinal in Cincinnati. “I remember those small moments watching him when I was a little kid – and even now. I mean, I watch him play and I’m still a fan.
“I’m his teammate, but I’m a fan,” Cremaschi said. “I’m still gonna’ be a fan of his. It’s just so amazing and so unreal to have him around.”
Aside from his calm and welcoming demeanor, there’s something else about Messi that his young teammates came to know fast.
“What really surprises me about him is his willingness to keep on winning,” Cremaschi admitted. “He doesn’t like to lose. A lot of people thought he would come to MLS and be relaxed and just be comfortable. But he’s here to win and his competitiveness is something a lot of us look up to.
“At the end of the day, we get attached to it.”
Callender Turns the Tables
Drake Callender, Inter Miami’s 25-year-old starting goalkeeper, grew up in a small town outside Sacramento with Messi posters plastered on his bedroom wall.
“That moment I walked into the locker room and there was Messi sitting at his locker, that’s when it all became real,” said Callender, who made two critical saves in Inter Miami’s Leagues Cup Final shootout win and even overshadowed his superstar teammates by scoring the deciding spot kick. “He was my teammate then and I knew ‘this guy is here and he wants to be here’.”
An impressive young man, already called into three USMNT camps and with all the makings of a future star, Calendar’s mind turned quickly to what Messi might be feeling. And how he could help his teammate adjust in his new surroundings.
“He’s kind of shy and, you know, soft-spoken,” the ‘keeper said of Messi. “I always have to think that this guy is coming to a whole new league, a whole new country. He’s probably trying to get settled. Everything is new for him, you know? So I just did my best to help him feel welcome.
“I tried not to fanboy or anything,” he said. “I think we’ve developed your pretty average standard teammate relationship.”
Fullback Noah Allen is, like Cremaschi, fresh out of the club’s academy and suddenly a teammate of Lionel Messi. It’s a lot to process. And as a defender, he’s been going up against the man from day-one.
Noah Allen Taking Notes
“I remember the second training session Messi was in,” said Allen, who lives with his parents north of Miami in Pembroke Pines. “He took a couple of surreal shots and then just, like, kept on doing it. And then I was going up against him and I gotta’ be honest, he just turned me like I wasn’t there.
“That was the moment I realized, ‘I gotta’ be sharper,” Allen said. “This is the best player in the world’.”
“And these guys are the best in the world for a reason,” he went on, discussing not only Messi but his former Barcelona (and now Inter Miami) teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. “I’m going against them every day, watching them train – it really sharpens you in every aspect of the game.
“You take all you can, the little bits and pieces from what these guys are doing and how they’re doing it,” added Allen, busy taking silent notes and cues from Messi and Co that will serve him well down the road.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.