Chinese fans and media have only had eyes for Lionel Messi, one of the greatest footballers in history, winner last December in Qatar of the World Cup, the only trophy that was still missing from his immense palmares.

On Thursday afternoon, thousands of fans braved temperatures approaching 40 ° C, arriving at the Workers' Stadium three hours before kick-off at 20 pm in this newly renovated stadium, where Messi did not take long to shine, opening the scoring in the 2nd minute of play. A second goal scored by German Pezzella sealed the victory of the world champions (2-0).

Many had come wearing Argentine shirts flocked with Messi's name and number 10. Others had smeared their faces with sky blue and white paint, or enthusiastically waved Argentine flags.

Due to the enthusiasm of the crowd, an important security device had to be put in place so that the bus carrying the Albiceleste players could access the stadium without hindrance.

"Messi is the greatest player of all time," said Zhong Xiaoqing, a 40-year-old lawyer who came from east China's Zhejiang province, more than 1,000 kilometers from Beijing.

Argentina and Lionel Messi against Australia in a friendly match on June 15, 2023 in Beijing © WANG Zhao / AFP

"I was totally seduced from the first time I saw him play in 2005," he told AFP. "He's a role model for me."

"Crying with joy"

Next to him, Sun Bingxin, 29, who works in human resources, cannot hold back his joy.

"I've kept that excitement in me so much that now I want to cry with joy," she told AFP before kick-off. "Any football fan in China would have liked to be here tonight (Thursday)."

Liu Rui, a 24-year-old student, said that attending the match was "like a dream come true". "In 40 years, I will be able to tell this to my grandchildren," he told AFP.

Since the arrival Saturday in the Chinese capital of the seven-time Ballon d'Or, hundreds of fans waving Argentine flags and wearing jerseys of the star are massed in front of the five-star hotel where the Argentina team is staying.

Fans wear Argentina star Lionel Messi's shirt before his friendly match against Australia, on June 15, 2023 in Beijing © Pedro PARDO / AFP

Along the street leading to the facility, security was tightened to contain the huge crowd that tried to catch a glimpse of the 35-year-old when he left for training.

A fan says he discreetly entered the Four Seasons Hotel to try to catch a glimpse of Lionel Messi and his teammates.

"I first hid in the janitor's closet, then I went upstairs to the team by the fire escape," the man told AFP, who gave only his surname, Lin.

Spotted and interrogated by hotel security, he was later released.

Expensive tickets

Another supporter, Li Weihua, said he flew in from the southern Chinese metropolis of Shenzhen and went straight to the hotel to join the supporters.

He traveled 2,000 kilometers to get to Beijing without even having a ticket for the match, because they sold out very quickly.

Chinese fans massed in front of the Argentina team hotel wait for the arrival of Lionel Messi, June 12, 2023 © JADE GAO / AFP/Archives

"I just wanted to feel the atmosphere," says the 29-year-old.

Huang Yongming, 17, from the big city of Changchun (northeast), managed to get one of the tickets for the match, which was sold out.

"I spent about 3,000 yuan (387 euros) on a ticket," he told AFP. "It's expensive, I know. But I told myself that if I didn't take this opportunity, I would have regrets."

Lionel Messi will soon join Inter Miami, in the United States, after spending two seasons at Paris Saint-Germain.

© 2023 AFP