Lionel Messi draws Brazilian fans to what could be the Argentine great's last match in Rio

Many Brazilians have become fans of Lionel Messi in recent years

Mauricio Savarese
Tuesday 21 November 2023 18:48 GMT
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Argentina Uruguay Wcup 2026 Soccer (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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Louise Thomas

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Rafael Yen is just a boy, only 8 years old and mad for soccer like most kids in soccer-mad Brazil, but he has a conundrum that even his father is so far powerless to fix.

Will Rafael wear an Argentina shirt at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday to watch Lionel Messi — his favorite player — when the World Cup champions play Brazil in a qualifying match?

“I told him to take it easy, that would be like wearing a Vasco da Gama shirt at a Flamengo match,” said Miguel Yen, the boy’s father, referring to one of fiercest rivalries in Brazilian soccer. “Today he put aside a Brazil shirt, too, so I still don’t know what that is going to be like after he comes back from school.”

Rafael has become such a fan of Messi, an eight-time Ballon d’Or winner, that he often sleeps with an Argentina shirt. He also got an Inter Miami jersey soon after striker moved to the MLS, and begged his father to take him to the Maracana to watch what could be his favorite player’s last appearance at the historic venue.

Supporters like Rafael don’t necessarily want Brazil to lose to Argentina, but they want to see the soccer great dribble, shoot and maybe even score.

Many Brazilians have cheered for Messi over the years, not only because of his incredible skills on the field, but also because of his respect for the five-time World Cup champions. When Messi’s teammates chanted an anti-Brazil song in the Maracana’s dressing room after winning the 2021 Copa America title, Messi was filmed telling them to stop. He’s also a close friend of Neymar’s, calls Ronaldo one of his biggest inspirations and always treated the late Pelé respectfully.

In return, many Brazilians enthusiastically celebrated Argentina’s most recent World Cup title — an unthinkable occurrence when the more divisive Diego Maradona was the team’s star.

Messi has not indicated when he will stop playing, saying he wants to enjoy playing as a World Cup champion. He is expected to be in the squad that will try to defend the Copa America title next year in the United States, but doubts remain on whether he will seek a second World Cup trophy at the age of 38.

Some Brazilian fans among the 69,000 at the Maracana will be happy to see Messi score his first goal against Brazil in a World Cup qualifying match, one of the few things he has yet to achieve (he has five goals in friendlies). The host team has never lost a qualifying match at home.

“I will be happy with a draw, as long as Messi scores,” said William Santos, a 14-year-old Brazilian standing outside the Maracana Stadium the day before the match. “I play with him in video games, watch him wherever he plays. I am short like he is. My friends said this could be the last chance to see him in Brazil, so I asked this as a Christmas gift. It cost 300 Brazilian reals ($40).”

Both Argentina and Brazil lost their previous World Cup qualifiers last week. The Brazilians were beaten at Colombia 2-1, while the World Cup champions fell at home to Uruguay 2-0.

Argentina, however, still leads the 10-team South American qualifying group with 12 points. Brazil is in fifth place with seven points.

The top six teams in the South American qualifying group will get automatic spots at the 2026 World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada — the first to have 48 teams in the field. The abundance of berths from the region takes some of the pressure off, especially with Brazil missing the injured Neymar, Vinicius Júnior and Casemiro.

Not everyone will be able to attend the match, however, so some Messi fans in Brazil will have to support him from their homes. History teacher Quincas Rodriguez and his 10-year-old triplets, Leon, Bento and Joaquim, could not find tickets for the big game at the iconic stadium.

“We are so upset because we can’t make it. We wanted to see Messi, not Brazil. We wanted to see the man who got to the same level of Maradona, my main reference in soccer,” Rodriguez said. “My children are Brazil fans, but they love Argentine soccer and Messi. They want him to score, they cheered for Argentina in the World Cup final. I was willing to get into debt, but there were no tickets.”

Nine years ago, Messi had far fewer fans in Brazil when Argentina lost to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final at the Maracana. Maria Ramos was one of those jumping up and down in front of the television when the Germans scored the only goal of that match.

This time, she chose to watch Messi over a ticket for a Taylor Swift concert in Rio.

“Messi deserves the fans he has. He is a nice person, you can’t say a bad thing about him,” said Ramos, who traveled from the state of Minas Gerais to Rio to attend the game. “I hear he was not as great as Pelé and Maradona. That could be, but he is surely the best that I have ever seen. I am happy to have the chance of seeing him at least once and see he exists for real.”

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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