Lionel Messi inspires a worldwide pilgrimage to Qatar World Cup

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

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

DOHA, Qatar – His worshipers come from Singapore and Los Angeles, from Egypt and Nigeria and Iraq. They came in droves from all parts of Argentina, but also many from India. Almost a million people have descended on Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, and tens of thousands are here as devout followers of one man and one team, Lionel Messi and Argentina. Only a fraction of them, though – perhaps a minority – are Argentine.

They come from China via Denmark, from Australia and Korea and Bangladesh. They came from the metropolis and distant 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 fanatic from India, “is our god.”

She sat outside a McDonald’s in Lucille on Friday with her husband and Messi-loving friends, amid a growing sea of ​​white and sky blue, and as part of a pilgrimage. Hours before Argentina and the Netherlands met in a World Cup quarterfinal for the ages, the areas around the Lusail Stadium filled with jerseys with his iconic number 10 and his five-letter name. There are certainly thousands of them among the 88,235 people in the Lusail, and thousands more who pack Doha Metro’s Red Line but exit a few stops early for fan festivals or the city’s buzzing hub, Souq Waqif.

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And their power, their collective history, is in their diversity. They are irrefutable evidence that Messi, who is clearly here to play for one country, Argentina, has touched the souls of dozens of countries, and probably more than 100 spanning the entire world.

Hundreds of millions of souls will gather around television on Tuesday at 2 pm ET, and 10 pm in Kenya, and 4 pm in Japan, to watch the World Cup semi-final between Argentina and Croatia. But thousands of the more privileged ones 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 saved money, prayed for an Argentina run and decided to splash his money.

“Money comes and goes, but the experience will never come again,” Shakib said while adjusting the Palestinian scarf he had draped over his Messi jersey. “I have to come witness him play his [likely final] World Cup.”

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

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

Shakib was one of countless emblems of the beautiful game’s modern era. International soccer fandom began, like the Olympics, as an exercise in nationalism. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, as television and then digital platforms connected the world, national teams increasingly transcended national borders. In South Asia, for example, in countries with massive soccer-mad populations but no world-class men’s team to root for, rival cults of Argentina supporters and Brazil supporters entrenched themselves in local cultures.

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

A separate group of young Kerala fans came without tickets, hoping to find their way into Friday’s quarter-final with some luck outside. One threw out his phone to prove his credentials: he claimed to be the creator of the world’s biggest Messi “clip”. Some, in fact, have been erected to tower over tiny Indian villages, with some standing 30-feet tall—and at least one collapsed.

There are 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 been communicating the same thing for years, whether it’s Diego [Maradona] Or Leo, “Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni said before the knockout rounds began. “It is always communicated this madness to the world. The jersey, the colors, the Argentine passion, how the fans are. It makes us proud that a country like Bangladesh cheers for Argentina, as many other countries do.

It goes without saying that the madness is nowhere as ubiquitous and passionate as in Argentina. Over the years, some citizens have maintained a complicated relationship with Messi, comparing him unfavorably to Maradona, but the vast majority are completely behind him and this team. Many have spent months worth of income, even in a shaky economy, on their trips to Qatar. They literally bow down to Messi as his brilliance drives their nation through the tournament. They come early and stay late after every Argentina win, blessing the World Cup with an organic soundtrack.

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A good one“They sing In plazas and stadiums, and while banging the ceilings of metro cars in between. Players even took the five-verse song to fields and locker rooms, thanking their followers for the unceasing, everyday support.

“I know the effort the fans make to be here in every game,” Messi said after fueling a 16-point victory. “I know that all of Argentina would like to be here, but it’s not possible.”

However, he and they are also fortified by the legion of Messi obsessives, by people like Robert and Ashley, a father-daughter duo who came from Los Angeles, paid $800 apiece for quarter-final tickets and know all the songs.

By people like Ethan, whose family migrated here from Penang, an island off the west coast of Malaysia, and who “fell in love with” Messi when he was 5 years old. (His brother, naturally, roots for Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo.)

And by people like Guozhen, who developed his obsession while watching Messi highlights and Barcelona games as a college student in Nanjing, China.

They came with facepaint and wild outfits, with replica jerseys and real ones. They dressed up, hoods and all kinds of flags.

They are here for something that resembles a one-time religious experience, for Messi’s fifth of five World Cups, and with one common dream: to see him win it.


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