Argentina prepares to face El Salvador in Philly in the absence of ‘irreplaceable’ Messi

The legendary captain will not lead the defending FIFA Men’s World Cup champions on the field, after he was ruled out with a hamstring injury.

Argentina's Angel Di Maria (left) and El Salvador's Nelson Bonilla.

Argentina's Angel Di Maria (left) and El Salvador's Nelson Bonilla. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko and Julio Cortez)

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There’s no escaping the fact that Friday night’s international soccer game at Lincoln Financial Field between Argentina and El Salavador will be played with the specter of a certain 36-year-old legend of the beautiful game out of the lineup.

Team captain Lionel Messi will not lead the defending FIFA Men’s World Cup champions on the field, after he was ruled out with a hamstring injury that he picked up playing for his Inter Miami’s Concacaf Champions Cup match against Nashville SC last week.

That’s not to say that there will be a shortage of stars on the field; Argentina are continental and world champions for good reason. Players like Lautaro Martínez, Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernández, Emiliano Martínez and Julián Álvarez are key pieces in some of the world’s best club teams. There are up-and-comers like Alejandro Garnacho, Facundo Buonanotte and Valentín Carboni, along with familiar veterans like Ángel Di Maria and Nicolás Otamendi.

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Argentina soccer head coach Lionel Scaloni speaks at a press conference
Argentina soccer head coach Lionel Scaloni briefed media ahead of a match against El Salvador at Lincoln Financial Field on March 21, 2024. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“No lo reemplazamos con uno, lo reemplazamos con el equipo”. “We don’t replace him with one, we replace him with the team,” said Lionel Scaloni, Argentina’s head coach.

Scaloni added that the team’s tactics and strategy would need to adjust, and every player on the team “has to contribute their grain of sand so that the team is even better.”

Argentina is gearing up to defend its Copa America title with this edition of the  tournament taking place across the U.S. After El Salvador and Costa Rica, the team will face Guatemala in a June 14 warm-up game in Landover, Md., before kicking off the tournament on June 20 in Atlanta.

It can be easy to overlook El Salvador in this match-up — this is No. 1 against No. 81 on FIFA’s latest rankings — but a large contingent of Salvadoran supporters could show up for the game, given the large communities based around the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metropolitan areas.

Head coach David Dóniga was appointed in January and has the uphill task of securing the team a spot in the 2026 World Cup, a task made slightly easier by the field expanding to 48 teams from 32.

El Salvador previously lost to Costa Rica 2-0 in a friendly. Before that, the side actually got the chance to face Messi — albeit for about 45 minutes — in Inter Miami’s preseason opener in January, which finished in a goalless draw.

El Salvador has previously made two World Cup tournaments, in 1970 and 1982.

Friday’s friendly match is part of world soccer’s current international break — one of the periods in the year where most club teams take a break to let some of their players represent their respective national team squads for matches. Argentina will next face Costa Rica at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on March 26.

Argentina’s Angel Di Maria, left, reacts, with Lionel Messi, right, after scoring a goal against Republic of Ireland in their International friendly soccer match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

The Philly and LA games came about after Argentina’s previously scheduled matches against Nigeria and Ivory Coast in China were called off in February, when Messi missed an exhibition match in Hong Kong for Miami, prompting boos and demands for refunds from fans. He then went on to play 30 minutes against Vissel Kobe in Tokyo three days later, which the Hong Kong government considered “deliberate and calculated.” Inter Miami and Messi have since apologized and the event’s organizer has said it will offer a 50% refund.

While it’s clear Messi will not take the field Friday, like Taylor Swift at the Super Bowl, there will likely be the looming question of “will he or won’t he” show up to offer support in the stands. A flight from Miami to Philadelphia does seem far more feasible than Swift’s dash from Tokyo to Las Vegas right after finishing a concert.

As with any event involving a global superstar of Messi’s caliber, it’s hard to escape the prevailing discussions surrounding him, even in his absence. Ticket sales for the match have moved slowly and plenty are still available as of Thursday evening. The last soccer match at the Linc, an October friendly between Mexico and Germany, brought in a 62,284 attendance.

Friday’s match kicks off at 8 p.m. It can also be watched on TUDN USA, FOX Deportes,,, the TUDN and FOX Sports apps, and FuboTV.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story stated Argentina plays Nigeria after El Savlador, not Costa Rica.

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