When tickets went on sale two weeks before FC Dallas played Inter Miami at the Cotton Bowl, social media was full of skeptics.

Pay $40 for parking just to see Messi play for five minutes? No thanks.

Skip Obsiye asked his friends about going, but none wanted to join, so four days before the match, he bought one ticket.

On Monday morning, the day of the match, rain came down in buckets. Temperatures hovered around 40 degrees. Tom Leatherbury’s wife looked out the window and asked, “You’re really going?”

American soccer fans are well acquainted with the uphill battle they face to grow the game around the nation. Despite being the most popular sport in the world, soccer doesn’t even get a spot on the team sports podium in the States, clocking in at fourth place—at best—behind football, basketball, and baseball.

Well, the greatest soccer player of this generation, and perhaps of all time, has come here to change that. Lionel Messi signed with Inter Miami last summer, making him the highest-paid player in Major League Soccer, with $20.4 million annually (plus incentives and a revenue-sharing deal with MLS broadcast partner Apple TV that could end up paying him upwards of $150 million over the course of his two-and-a-half-year contract, according to ESPN).

Messi isn’t the first international star to leave elite European football to top off a career in MLS, but none has attracted crowds like the 36-year-old Argentine. His presence is even helping to bring other iconic figures in world soccer into the MLS fold to play alongside him.

Just before the teams stepped onto the pitch for Monday’s preseason friendly, eight-year-old Mathieu Burciaga held the right hand of Luis Suárez. The Dallas-area boy was one of several club soccer players who were selected to walk out with the teams. Suárez, a forward who signed with Inter Miami after a decorated club career in the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga, was about to have his first game in the United States since joining MLS.

“You’re the best the striker in the league,” Burciaga told Suárez. The Uruguayan just smiled in response. A few feet in front of them, Messi stepped out of the tunnel holding hands with a young girl in a too-large pink jersey.

Fans hung over the sides of railings in attempts to grab a picture of him. Those in the bleachers at midfield, wrapped up in blankets and ponchos, raised their hands and screamed with excitement.

Monday’s match wasn’t Messi’s first trip to Texas. When Inter Miami came to Frisco to face FC Dallas last August, Toyota Stadium was packed to the brim, with around 20,000 fans in attendance. Tickets sold out within minutes, and resale prices soared north of $800. The host club knew that interest in Messi would be strong, but not that it would be downright overwhelming. The long lines and interminable waits to get through security last summer made it clear that Messi’s return would require a larger venue.

At 5 p.m. Monday, the referee blew the starting whistle, and fans felt a thrill to see Messi standing on the pitch. While the rain had stopped, the pitch was slippery, and there had been some pregame jitters that Messi might not risk an injury for a friendly match on grass that might turn into something resembling a Slip ’N Slide. “Maybe he’ll play a quarter [of the match],” Obsiye thought after the kickoff.

Just three minutes into the match, a player wearing number ten received a pass and slotted the ball between a defender and the goalkeeper to bury it in the back of the net. But this forward wasn’t wearing the black and pink of Inter Miami. He was decked out in a white FC Dallas jersey with “Ferreira” embossed on the back. After Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira gave the home team an early lead, the crowd of 32,211 got to see the other number ten, Messi, in action. At minute eight, he walked casually to the corner of the field, set the ball down, and backed up outside the painted lines for a kick. Obsiye stood up from his seat a few rows above the field and wondered if he was viewing a video game.

“Is he really here? Is this the guy everybody’s talking about?”

One section over, Peter Steffensen, a former college soccer player, watched with a mix of awe and the feeling of “never being able to compare” to Messi’s greatness. “There’s something so different about watching someone in person, versus on TV,” Steffensen said. “Even if they’re late-career.”

On the pitch, Messi jogged a few steps forward and swung his left leg toward the ball, sending it through the air at a curve that took it directly toward the goal. If it went in, it would have been his first-ever Olimpico—the term for a goal scored directly from a corner kick.

The ball was sailing just under the crossbar and toward the net when Maarten Paes, FC Dallas’s 25-year-old goalkeeper, jumped and batted it away. After a scuffle near the goal, Paes lay down on top of the ball.

When Miami played Dallas last year, Messi scored twice on Paes, but the keeper felt he was close to stopping Messi, and he used the memory as motivation during the offseason, Paes said at a practice last week. The next time Messi took a shot on goal, Paes said, he wanted to be able to “make world-class saves to prevent him from scoring those world-class goals.”

Later in the first half, Messi challenged Paes again, taking a shot from inside the box. Paes dove onto his side, his gloves hitting the ball enough to deflect it away from the goal. He stood up quickly and clapped in excitement.

At halftime, Messi walked straight toward the locker room with a mixture of players from both teams. The one to stop and sign autographs for several of the kids who were acting as ball boys was Suárez. The striker known for his out-of-control temper and infamous for biting several opposing players was showing off his warm and cuddly side, and nine-year-old Jude Elizondo was happy to lift his shirt for Suárez to scrawl his name in black Sharpie on a gray jersey underneath. Michael Parides, also nine, got an autograph on his red shorts.

When asked which player they were most excited to see, they stumbled over each other with various Miami names. Messi. Suárez. Spanish star Sergio Busquets. Then, in unison, they yelled, “Vamos Messi!”

By the time the second half started, the fog that surrounded the stadium had become a blowing mist, and the temperatures dropped with the setting sun. But fans who came to see one of soccer’s living legends got their money’s worth. Messi had three shots on goal and played 64 minutes. Just before the end of the game, he walked off the field, and fans once again draped themselves over the railings with phones in hand. Once he’d left the game, a good amount of them made for the exits themselves.

Obsiye wasn’t among them. He stood in the bleachers until after the final whistle of FC Dallas’s 1–0 victory, when ushers started to herd people out of the stadium. He said he doesn’t even consider himself a soccer fan, and that he prefers the NBA. But here he found himself at his second FC Dallas game in the last six months.

“I like greatness,” he said. “If you’re great at what you do, at the top of the level, I’m there.”