Lionel Messi inspires global pilgrimage to Qatar World Cup

Fans take photos of Argentina's Lionel Messi during the World Cup quarter-final soccer match between Netherlands and Argentina at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar on Friday, December 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Fans take pictures of Argentina’s Lionel Messi during the World Cup quarter-final soccer match between Netherlands and Argentina, at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar on Friday, December 9, 2022. ( AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

DOHA, Qatar – His worshipers have come from Singapore and Los Angeles, Egypt, Nigeria and Iraq. They came en masse from all regions of Argentina, but also en masse from India. Nearly a million people descended on Qatar for the World Cup 2022and tens of thousands are here as staunch supporters of one man and one team, Lionel Messi and Argentina. However, only a fraction of them – perhaps a minority – are Argentinian.

They came from China via Denmark, Australia, Korea and Bangladesh. They came from metropolises and remote villages, from near and far. They speak dozens of different languages ​​and practice several different religions but, above all, they share one.

“Messi,” said Amrita, a middle-aged Indian fanatic, “is our God.”

She sat outside a McDonald’s in Lusail on Friday with her husband and Messi-loving friends, amid a growing sea of ​​white and sky blue, and part of a pilgrimage. hours before Argentina and the Netherlands met in the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the ages, the areas around Lusail Stadium filled with shirts bearing his iconic No.10 and five-letter name. There were surely thousands of them among the 88,235 people inside the Lusail, and thousands more who filled the Doha Metro Red Line but exited a few stops early for the fan festivals. or the bustling center of town, Souq Waqif.

And their power, their collective history, lies in their diversity. They are irrefutable proof that Messi, who is here explicitly to play for one country, Argentina, has touched the souls of dozens of countries, and probably more than 100 worldwide.

Hundreds of millions of those souls will gather around the televisions on Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, 10 p.m. in Kenya and 4 a.m. in Japan, to watch the World Cup semi-final between Argentina and Croatia. But thousands of privileged people have paid thousands of dollars to travel to Qatar for Messi’s last dance.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Shakib, a “diehard” Messi fan from California. He had saved some money, prayed for an errand in Argentina, and decided to spend his money.

“Money comes and goes, but this experience will never happen again,” Shakib said as he adjusted the Palestinian scarf he had draped over his Messi shirt. “I had to come see him play his [likely final] World Cup.”

Fans from all over the world came to Qatar to witness Argentina's Lionel Messi shine.  (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Fans from all over the world came to Qatar to witness Argentina’s Lionel Messi shine. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Shakib was one of countless emblems of the modern age of the beautiful game. The international football fandom began, like the Olympics, as an exercise in nationalism. In the late 20th and early 21st century, however, as television and then digital platforms connected the world, national teams increasingly transcended national borders. In South Asia, for example, in countries where massive populations are crazy about football but there are no world-class men’s teams to cheer on, the rival cults of Argentinian fans and Brazilian supporters have become entrenched in local cultures.

In Kerala, India’s most southwestern state, where some of Messi’s wildest fans reside, “in a house, if there are two brothers, obviously one will be Brazil and the other Argentina,” said Abdullah, a teenager. who came to Qatar specifically to see Messi in the flesh. “You must choose a side.”

A distinct group of young Kerala fans came without tickets, hoping to find their way to Friday’s quarter-finals hopefully away. One of them pulled out his phone to prove his credentials: he claimed to be the creator of the biggest Messi ‘cutout’ in the world. Several, in fact, were erected to tower over tiny Indian villages, some standing 30 feet tall – and at least one collapse.

There is even Kerala-based Messi fan clubs with over 100,000 followers on Instagram.

In Bangladesh, overflowing crowds gathered to celebrate Argentina’s victories.

“The national team jersey has communicated the same thing for years, whether it’s Diego [Maradona] or Leo,” said Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni before the start of the knockout stages. “He always communicated that craziness to the world. The jersey, the colors, the Argentinian passion, the way the fans are. It makes us proud that a country like Bangladesh encourages Argentina, as many other countries do.

Of course, nowhere is madness more pervasive and passionate than in Argentina. Over the years, some citizens have maintained a complicated relationship with Messi, and compared him unfavorably to Maradona, but the vast majority are all behind him and this team. Many have spent months of income, even in a faltering economy, on their trips to Qatar. They literally bow to Messi as his genius leads their nation through the tournament. They come early and stay late after every Argentinian victory, and have blessed this World Cup with an organic soundtrack.

A lotaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa,” they or they to sing in squares and stadiums, and while hitting the ceilings of subway cars in between. The players even took the five verse song in the fields and cloakroomsand thanked their followers for their tireless and vocal support.

“I know the effort the fans make to be here for every game,” Messi said after picking up a round of 16 win. “I know that all of Argentina would like to be here, but it’s not possible.”

He and they were also fortified, however, by that legion of Messi obsessives, by the likes of Robert and Ashley, a father-daughter duo from Los Angeles, paid $800 each for quarter-final tickets and knowing all the songs.

By the likes of Ethan, whose family came here from Penang, an island off the west coast of Malaysia, and who ‘fell in love’ with Messi when he was 5. (His brother, naturally, hails from Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo.)

And by the likes of Guozhen, who developed his obsession watching Messi highlights and Barcelona games while a student in Nanjing, China.

They came with face paint and wild outfits, with replica jerseys and real ones. They put on scarves and all kinds of flags.

They are here for something akin to a once-in-a-lifetime religious experience, for Messi’s fifth of five World Cups, and with a common dream: to see him win.

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