JOHANNESBURG – There's nothing new about politicians and celebrities hogging the spotlight at a Mamelodi Sundowns versus Barcelona match when they wouldn’t be seen anywhere near a PSL game.
Hangers-on are a common feature in these parts. So, enough about the slay queens, Patrice Motsepe and his entourage, who delayed kickoff by a minute or so because they insisted on shaking the hands of each and every single player from both teams.
Nevermind the glory seeking moments at halftime, when the Sundowns billionaire owner again took to the pitch and waxed lyrical about the reasons why he’d reached deep into his pockets to bring the Spanish giants here – including their talisman Lionel Messi.
That should be the story. Not the shameless spotlight-grabbers who creep out of the woodwork now and again to show face at a glamorous event such as this encounter at the Calabash.
While VIP suites were overflowing with a group whose PSL knowledge is questionable at best, Messi watched on from the bench, having started a second successive, albeit friendly match pencilled in as a training session in Barcelona’s schedule ahead of their final La Liga fixture at home to Real Sociedad on Sunday.
The little Argentine magician, not in this part of the world for the first time, having captained his rather uninspiring national team during the 2010 World Cup, had reportedly been suffering from a niggle, and coach Ernesto Valverde took precaution by leaving him out of the side that surrendered Barcelona’s unbeaten run in the league to Levante at the weekend.
There had been questions marks over whether Messi would indeed be available for this clash between the champions of South Africa and those of Spanish football.
Contractually, apparently, he had to be here. But there were rumours, even from the Spanish press, that he and other senior players were not so keen on making the trip to a freezing Johannesburg.
But the club honoured Madiba and made sure travelling was far from energy-sapping. Barcelona were expected to spend a total of 14 hours in the country, having landed around 8am on Wednesday and heading to the airport soon after the final whistle here.
The more than 85 000 spectators that braved the cold weather would be split down the middle if asked whether they got their money’s worth.
For those 20 dignitaries that followed Motsepe around like a love-sick puppy to touch Messi’s hand – one of them caught in the moment asking a player to help him lift his heavy jacket and balance it on his shoulders – it was a night to remember.
Some would have wanted to see Messi on the pitch a lot earlier – but they were not starved of his skills, the player having come on shortly after the 70th-minute mark to show his class, an appetiser for the World Cup in Russia next month.
There, Messi will have an incredible amount of responsibility on his shoulders. He will turn 31 during the global showpiece in Moscow, and that might very well be his last for Argentina.
So mammoth is the task that Messi is expected to single-handedly help Argentina, who had to rely heavily on the Barcelona talisman to get them through the qualifiers, go one better this year than four years ago.
In Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, Messi and his national teammates reached the final, but were beaten 1-0 by Germany, the goal coming from the boot of Mario Gotze during extra time.
The load roar from the crowd here at FNB Stadium will be nothing compared to his homecoming in Buenos Aires should Messi reach absolute cult hero status by lifting the World Cup trophy with his national team.