(AP) — A steakhouse in the trendy Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo was mobbed by hundreds of frenzied football fans late Monday night when word spread that Lionel Messi was inside having dinner.
People rushed to the exclusive Don Julio restaurant eager to get a glimpse of the man who led Argentina to its third World Cup title. Messi eventually needed a police escort to leave.
Fans on the street corner chanted “Messi, Messi” and sang the words to “Muchachos,” which became the unofficial anthem for the Argentina squad that beat France in a thrilling final in Qatar.
The scene witnessed in the neighbourhood of Argentina’s capital known for its bars and restaurants illustrates how Messi has now become like the late Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to its second World Cup trophy in 1986, and he can no longer walk through Argentina’s streets without being mobbed.
It wasn’t always this way.
The man who is now cheered wherever he goes once used to suffer the indifference and even apathy from many Argentina fans who blamed him for the country’s failings in previous championships. All that vitriol led the man who is often called the best football player in the world to even quit the national team in 2016, although he later backtracked.
All of that now seems to be forgotten as Messi fever has decidedly taken over, recalling what happened with Maradona 36 years ago after he raised the World Cup in Mexico. The then-captain also had to deal with fans that chased him wherever he went in the hopes of getting a photograph or an autograph.
On Monday night, the multitude was so great that police officers had to arrive at the restaurant to accompany the 35-year-old Messi to his vehicle while keeping fans at bay.
Images and video posted on social media showed the furor of the fans that seemed willing to do anything to greet and touch the Paris Saint-Germain player. “Messi I love you” and “Thank you, Leo” were just a few phrases that could be heard as he was escorted out of the restaurant.
“Thank you for looking at me captain, I can die in peace,” one user wrote on Twitter accompanied by a video that showed a smiling Messi being escorted as people shouted “I love you!”
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni celebrated the Messi mania that has been unleashed in Buenos Aires and across the country.
“What Leo is experiencing is beautiful because he deserves all that love, him and all the players who are here,” Scaloni said at a news conference Tuesday. “Leo also needs to see that people love him and what happens when he comes here. I think it’s beautiful, it will stay with him forever.”
Messi arrived in Argentina on Monday to celebrate the World Cup title with a friendly match against Panama on Thursday in Buenos Aires. The 63,000 tickets sold out in a flash.
Security officials are not revealing any details about how the team will travel to the stadium out of fear that fans will block roads and ultimately block the passage of the players. There are rumours the players could travel via helicopter.
After winning the World Cup title in December, a planned celebratory open-top bus ride throughout the city had to be cut short as millions of fans made it impossible for the bus to advance.