Doha, Qatar – When 18-year-old Abdur Rahman stepped inside Lusail Stadium ahead of Argentina’s quarterfinal against the Netherlands on Friday night, he broke down. And at the first sight of Lionel Messi warming up on the pitch, his heart began pounding.
It had been Rahman’s biggest dream: to see Messi play ever since he first became familiar with modern football’s biggest name in 2010.
“I began following Messi [on television] at the 2010 World Cup, when I was six,” Rahman told Al Jazeera, pausing to collect his thoughts. “I could never imagine I would be inside the same stadium and be breathing the same air as him one day.”
The engineering student from Bahrain said he had been saving money for six months for this day. He came prepared with a Messi T-shirt, an Argentina flag tied around his neck and painted on his cheek, and “Oh Argentina Vamos” on his lips.
“I love the Argentina team and I feel like I’m one of them so I have learned their anthems and practiced their celebrations,” Rahman said before standing up to wave and sing with thousands of Argentines around him.
Argentina have had some of the biggest support inside stadiums during this World Cup. That’s partly the luck of the draw — they’ve played most of their matches at Lusail Stadium, the biggest venue for the tournament, which can seat nearly 89,000 people. But while most of their supporters have Messi’s name and number 10 on their backs, they don’t all come from the same country or even the same continent.
Muhammad Adil and his Messi-loving family are from Kerala, India. They landed in Qatar just hours before the quarterfinal.
Adil and his three siblings, carrying a large Argentina flag, got seats behind the goal. After more than two hours of high-octane action that included four goals, 17 yellow cards, one red card, an on-field brawl and a penalty shoot-out, Argentina prevailed.
The siblings were overjoyed.
“Messi is my happiness,” Adil said with a big toothy grin. “It was surreal seeing him from a few hundred metres away, and I will always carry this moment in my heart.” Adil and his family returned home a few hours after the game but said they would cheer Argentina on from Kerala, a southern Indian state which Adil said was “crazy about football”.
South American football teams, in particular, have always enjoyed great following in the state – as is the case across South Asia – and the World Cup is greeted with fervour.
But Messi’s appeal isn’t limited to a few parts of the world. It spreads across borders and unites strangers, and it was on display when Argentina’s place in the semifinals was confirmed with Lautaro Martinez’s successful penalty kick on December 9.
Strangers seated next to each other jumped, high-fived and hugged each other as the stadium erupted in celebration. As Messi walked close to the fans with his arms aloft, his admirers bowed before him and chanted his name in unison.
Among them was Haopeng Wang, from China, who kept his head down until the 35-year-old football star turned around to join his teammates. “Messi is my god,” Wang said, patting his chest in a rhythmic motion, as if to slow down his heartbeat and make himself believe that he wasn’t dreaming.
“He [Messi] made a wonderful assist, and showed his magic,” the 22-year-old said, before putting his hands up to say he was “too emotional to speak”.
Disbelief gave way to raucous and passionate celebrations as fans made their way out of the stadium. The one title that has eluded Argentina’s decorated captain was now two wins away and the significance was not lost on his admirers.
A group of Bangladeshi fans filed out of the venue with flags of their own country and that of their hero. Their chants in Bengali were punctuated with Messi’s name. Fakhrul Islam, one of the fans, explained that they were singing, “Messi needs the World Cup and the World Cup needs Messi.”
“It will be a shame for football if Messi doesn’t win a World Cup in his career, and all our prayers are with him,” he added, holding his hands up in prayer and looking skywards.
Others, like Yasin from Sudan, seemed more confident that the Rosario-born icon would deliver Argentina’s third World Cup title. He said he had travelled more than 2,000km (1,242 miles) to watch the “greatest ever” footballer, and won’t go home without seeing him lift the trophy.
As tens of thousands of spectators made a beeline for stadium exits, Yasin stood still with a sage-like smile and a handmade placard that read in Spanish: “Messi is here, World Cup is a matter of time.”
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