BEIJING – Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi arrived in Beijing on Saturday ahead of a friendly match, before he makes his move to join Major League Soccer side Inter Miami as a free agent.
His arrival was announced in a post on the organising International Football Invitation’s official Weibo social media site with a video of players stepping off a plane, ahead of Thursday’s Argentina-Australia match in the Chinese capital’s recently rebuilt Workers’ Stadium.
Messi, who lifted the World Cup in Qatar in December and is considered to be one of the game’s all-time greats, confirmed last week he will leave French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
This is the Argentina captain’s seventh visit to China and his first since 2017.
He has received a fervent welcome on each of his previous visits to the country, which has a huge football fan base despite the struggles of the men’s national team, who have played at the World Cup only once.
His arrival was a top-trending topic on Chinese social media on Saturday.
“I’m so excited,” said hospital administration worker Guo Wenwen, who has followed Messi since 2014, owns around 30 replica Messi jerseys and regularly posts videos on social media related to the Argentinian.
Like many, she does not yet have a ticket for the match but she is going to Beijing anyhow to see if she can get one.
“I’m going to Beijing to try to see him,” she said. “He is my role model, my idol, my spiritual pillar, is the ideal type of company and a source of happiness.”
In Beijing, hundreds of fans wearing replica jerseys queued up for hours at the airport and also the hotel where Messi was due to stay, with many providing livestreams on social media and some chanting his name as they hoped to catch a glimpse of the superstar.
Some contrasted his popularity with the dim view many have of the men’s national team.
“Many Chinese fans love football but the Chinese national team are just so weak,” said Beijing resident Song Gang, who joined the hordes at the hotel but like most did not see Messi as he was whisked in a side entrance.
“We hope his visit will have a positive impact for Chinese football. But then again, look at the size of our population and our national team has been playing for so many years and the results seem to get worse and worse. I hope they improve.”
Australia and Argentina last met at the Qatar World Cup in the round of 16, in which Messi was among the scorers as his team won 2-1. REUTERS