Lionel Messi 'now the GOAT' for Middle East fans as Argentina reach World Cup final

Cities and suburbs across the region turned light blue and white in support of veteran forward

Argentina fans in Lebanon say Lionel Messi 'deserves to win the World Cup' after his side's semi-final victory against Croatia. Reuters
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As the final whistle blew to confirm Argentina's World Cup semi-final victory over Croatia, images on social media showing overjoyed supporters waving flags and wearing the team’s light blue and white jersey.

They chanted Lionel Messi's name amid the cacophony of car horns and firecrackers.

You would be forgiven for thinking you were watching footage beamed directly from a suburb in Argentina.

Instead, the pictures and video were coming from a suburb in the Lebanese capital, Beirut — one of hundreds of similar posts from across the Middle East.

“This is not Rosario [a city in Argentina] but this is Moucharafieh in Lebanon, in the suburb of Beirut. Vamos Argentina, Vamos Messi”, an Argentina fan tweeted.

Lebanon is home to a sizeable Argentina fan base.

For some supporters, their allegiance comes directly from their admiration for Messi, Argentina's star striker and midfielder, who is very popular in the country.

“I’m a Messi supporter more than an Argentina one. He is from another planet, I believe he is the only one who deserves to win the World Cup,” said Bassam, 29.

The rivalry between Messi and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, often considered the two greatest players of the modern era, is mirrored among some fans in Lebanon.

Some believe most Croatian fans on Tuesday were bitter Ronaldo supporters who were hoping to see Messi defeated, after Morocco crushed Portugal's World Cup dreams in the quarter-finals.

Beyond current sporting “feuds”, others have supported the Argentina football team for decades.

“It is an emotional choice for me, I have been with them since I’m a kid because of Diego Maradona: he is the real football legend,” said Khalil, 33, a hotel manager.

Lebanese are traditionally divided between Brazil and Germany, two of the world’s strongest teams, with massive celebrations usually following a victory by one of them.

“There are fewer Argentina fans and we are quieter, which also makes us somehow special,” said long-time supporter Elie, 38.

In Saudi Arabia, fans are still basking in the knowledge that their team were the only ones to beat the potential champions so far.

The kingdom came from behind to beat the two-time champions at Qatar’s Lusail Stadium on November 22 in a game that shocked world football.

“The only team Argentina lost to was Saudi Arabia — I will take that as a huge win for us,” said Ahmad Albasheer, in Riyadh.

Messi praises Argentina's 'intelligence' after defeating Croatia

Messi praises Argentina's 'intelligence' after defeating Croatia

“I mean to defeat the GOAT [greatest of all time] was the highlight for us even though we didn't make it to the finals. Argentina is one of the best teams so I am excited to see what happens.”

Rashid Ammar, a Saudi football fan in Jeddah, said: “I went to watch the Saudi-Argentina game and it was unbelievable. Was so proud of my team. But we love Messi and want to watch him play. He is the best footballer of all time.

“There were mixed feelings when Messi was playing us because we respect him so much. It was an amazing feeling to see our country win and beat world champions. We love to watch Messi play; he is our official ambassador so, of course, we support him,” said Rana Hammad, a Saudi fan in Jeddah.

“To see him in my own city, Jeddah, when he visited, it got us all excited — my friends were calling me saying we should go to Balad [old town] to see him, but I hope we get a chance when he comes back.”

“I love Messi, I am his biggest fan. I want to see him win and I can't wait for the final — it will be epic,” said Abdullah Othman, 22, a student in Riyadh.

“The way he plays is so beautiful. I never miss any of his games.”

However, for many in the region, it was difficult to separate their love of Messi and Argentina from their socioeconomic situation. This was keenly felt in Tunisia, which has battled high unemployment for decades.

“Their lives are similar to ours, densely populated neighbourhoods, poverty and crime. Football makes them happy in the same way it makes us happy,” said Aymen Dridi, a Tunisian Education Ministry employee.

“On top of that, it is the country of revolutionary icon Che Guevara and the legend Maradona.”

For Ghaylen Jlassi, 25, Argentina's success is a bright light in what appears to be an increasingly unequal world.

“I tend to cheer for Latin American teams over European ones. Their victory represents a victory to all football lovers from the people of the Third World,” the law student told The National.

Omar Bejaoui, who lives in Tunis, agreed.

“Football is the game of the impoverished and Argentina is the country of the impoverished that genuinely love football. It is impossible for someone to love football and not love Argentina.”

In Egypt, football fans spent the tournament torn between their allegiance to Morocco, the first Arab national team to make it into the semi-finals, and their love for Messi, said Ahmed Youssef, 28, a journalist in the North African country.

The 35-year-old forward has long been loved by Egyptian football fans, Mr Youssef said.

“Messi is the most popular player in the Arab world,” he said.

“It used to be divided between him and Cristiano Ronaldo but this year, Ronaldo disappointed a lot of people,” Mr Youssef said.

“He made some really ill-advised career decisions and said all that stuff about Manchester United.”

Mr Youssef was referring to comments made by the Portuguese star in November, when he lambasted his former club and manager Erik ten Hag. He departed the club soon after.

“This year, many of the fans who used to like Ronaldo over Messi are rooting for Messi to win. There is a lot of sympathy for Messi this year.

“And when you consider that it is his final world cup, many think that an Argentina win at the final this year will be a very appropriate end to the career of such a great player.”

With reporting by Mariam Nihal in Jeddah, Ghaya Ben Mbarek in Tunis and Kamal Tabikha in Cairo

Updated: December 15, 2022, 4:33 AM