15, June 2023
Messi mania gripped a sweltering Beijing ahead of a sell-out friendly on Thursday evening between world champions Argentina and Australia in the Chinese capital.
All eyes were on Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest footballer of all time, who lifted the World Cup for the Albiceleste in December.
Thousands of Chinese fans braved temperatures of nearly 40 degrees Celsius, gathering at Beijing’s newly renovated Workers’ Stadium several hours before the 8 pm (1200 GMT) kick-off.
Many came clad in replica Argentina shirts emblazoned with Messi’s name and number 10, while others had daubed their faces with sky-blue and white paint or were excitedly clasping flags.
Security guards corralled hundreds of fans behind barriers outside the western gate to the ground, where the Argentina team coach was due to enter.
Forty-year-old lawyer Zhong Xiaoqing from eastern China’s Zhejiang province told AFP that Messi was his “perfect idol”.
“Messi is the greatest player of all time,” he said. “I was completely enamoured the first time I saw him play in 2005.
“He’s a model for me -– my perfect idol.”
For 29-year-old HR worker Sun Bingxin from northern Shanxi province, the excitement had been overwhelming.
“I’ve been so pent up about it that I feel like I could cry with joy,” she told AFP before kick-off.
“Every football fan in China has wanted to be here tonight, so it’ll be a spectacular occasion.”
Liu Rui, a 24-year-old student from Nanjing in eastern Jiangsu province, said being at the match was “really a dream come true”.
“In 40 years’ time, I can tell my grandchildren about this,” he told AFP.
Hundreds of flag-waving fans had been camped outside the team’s luxury hotel ever since they touched down on Saturday.
Crowds have lined heavily guarded streets hoping to catch a glimpse of the 35-year-old each time the team goes for training.
The man himself has kept a low profile, but that has done little to dampen enthusiasm.
One daring fan recounted his tale of spending the night inside the Four Seasons hotel in a bid to get a close encounter with Messi and his teammates.
“I first hid in the janitor’s closet, then went up to the team’s floor through the fire escape staircase,” the man, surnamed Lin, told AFP.
He was questioned by hotel security before being released.
Another fan, Li Weihua, said he had flown from his home city of Shenzhen in southern China, heading straight to the hotel.
He does not even have a ticket for the match at the 68,000-capacity Workers’ Stadium, which had quickly sold out.
“I just want to feel the environment,” said the 29-year-old, who had never been to Beijing before.
Huang Yongming, 17, from the northeastern city of Changchun, was more successful in getting a highly coveted ticket.
“I spent around 3,000 yuan ($419) for a ticket,” Huang told AFP. “I know it’s expensive, but I thought that if I didn’t take the opportunity, I would regret it.”
Messi is set to join Inter Miami this summer, after two years at Paris Saint-Germain.