DOHA (AFP): Lionel Messi and Argentina’s bid for a third World Cup crown is being boosted by hordes of travelling fans that have transformed each of their matches in Qatar into virtual home games.
Argentine football venues are renowned for their seething intensity — iconic Buenos Aires cauldrons such as the Bombonera or Monumental tremble with passionate ferocity.
Those kinds of scenes have been recreated regularly at Doha’s Lusail Stadium, where tens of thousands of Argentine fans have created a raucous wall of blue-and-white-shirted sound.
Argentina have already played three games at the glittering 88,966-seat arena, where Messi and his team-mates will battle Croatia on Tuesday, aiming to book a place in the World Cup final.
After most Argentina games, the “Albiceleste” have lingered on the pitch long after the final whistle, sharing a moment of emotionally charged communion with their supporters.
“We like to take advantage of these moments with the people who are here and in Argentina, where everyone is euphoric,” Messi said following Friday’s quarter-final win over the Netherlands.
According to the Argentine embassy in Qatar, between 35,000 and 40,000 fans have travelled to the World Cup to support the team, one of the largest contingents of overseas supporters at the tournament.
That sizeable support has been augmented by thousands of Qatar-based migrant workers from India and Bangladesh, where Messi and Argentina enjoy widespread support.
“Compared to France, Argentina aren’t quite at the same level as a team — but they are a team who are benefiting from the support they have here,” the Argentina-born former France striker David Trezeguet told AFP.
At the end of each of their victories at the World Cup, after joining supporters in post-match singing, Argentina’s players will repeat the line that they are playing for “45 million” of their compatriots.
“What I do, I do for the 45 million, They are going through a bad economic period. Giving people joy is the best thing that I can do at the moment,” said Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, the hero of Friday’s penalty shootout win over the Netherlands.
– Economic hardships –
Trezeguet believes the bond between Argentina’s players and their supporters has been forged by the economic crisis battering the country, where inflation has skyrocketed.
“My first memories of the Argentina team were in Mexico in 1986. It was crazy back then, but nothing like as crazy as it is now,” Trezeguet said. “The socio-economic situation in Argentina at the moment has made the support for the team more passionate than ever.”
According to reports in the media, many of the fans who have travelled to Qatar have spent years saving up to make the trip, diligently converting their Argentine pesos into US dollars in order to avoid the ravages of inflation.
Others such as Beto, a fan in his 60s interviewed by AFP as he walked through Doha’s Souq Waqif, have travelled to Qatar from the United States or elsewhere after emigrating overseas. The passion, however, remains as intense as ever.
“Even though I’ve lived in the United States for a long time, if you cut my wrist, I will bleed blue and white,” Beto told AFP.
“We have an immense passion for football. We suffer a lot on a daily basis because there are problems in our country, the economy is not doing well. But football gives us this energy which allows us to go from nothing to everything.”
That passion is evoked in two songs that have regularly reverberated around Qatar’s stadiums when Argentina are playing — “Vamos Argentina” and “Muchachos”, a de facto national anthem of the national team which name-checks Messi, Diego Maradona and the 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and Britain.
“Argentina is a complex, politically fractured country. There are few subjects that unite the country — but the Falklands and the football team do,” said Edgardo Esteban, director of the Falklands Museum in Buenos Aires.