Lionel Messi inspires a worldwide pilgrimage to Qatar World Cup

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

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

They’ve come from China via Denmark, from Australia and Korea and Bangladesh. They’ve come from metropolises and remote villages, from nearby and from far away. 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 was sitting 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 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 bearing His iconic No. 10 and His five-letter name. There were surely thousands of them among the 88,235 people inside the Lusail, and thousands more who packed Doha Metro’s red line but exited a few stops early for fan festivals or the city’s buzzing hub, Souq Waqif.

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

Hundreds of millions of those souls will gather around TVs on Tuesday at 2 pm ET, and 10 pm in Kenya, and 4 am in Japan, to watch the World Cup semifinal between Argentina and Croatia. But thousands of the more privileged ones 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’d saved up money, prayed for an Argentina run, and decided to splash his cash.

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

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

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

Shakib was one of countless emblems of the beautiful game’s modern age. International soccer fandom began, like the Olympics, as an exercise in nationalism. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, although, 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.

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

A separate group of young fans from Kerala came without tickets, hoping to find their way into Friday’s quarterfinal with some outside luck. One whipped out his phone to prove his credentials: He claimed to be the creator of the world’s largest Messi “cut-out.” Several, in fact, have been erected to tower over tiny Indian villages, with some standing 30-feet tall — and at least one collapsing.

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

In Bangladesh, overflowing crowds have gathered to celebrate Argentina 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’s always communicated this madness to the world. The jersey, the colors, the Argentine passion, the way the fans are. It makes us proud that a country like Bangladesh cheers for Argentina, as many other countries do.”

Of course, nowhere is the madness as ubiquitous and passionate as 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 fully 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 arrive early and stay late after every Argentina win, and have blessed this World Cup with an organic soundtrack.

Muchaaaachooooss,” they sing in plazas and stadiums, and while banging the ceilings of metro cars in between. Players have even taken the five-verse song to fields and locker rooms, and thanked their followers for the unceasing, vociferous support.

“I know the effort the fans are making to be here in every match,” Messi said after fueling a Round of 16 victory. “I know the whole of Argentina would like to be here, but it’s not possible.”

He and they have also been fortified, though, by this legion of Messi obsessives, by people like Robert and Ashley, a father-daughter duo who came from Los Angeles, paid $800 apiece for quarterfinal tickets, and know all the songs.

By people like Ethan, whose family trekked 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 have come with facepaint and wild outfits, with replica jerseys and real ones. They have donned headscarves and all sorts 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 communal dream: to see him win it.

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