Sao Paulo: Brazil loves to hate Argentina but Lionel Messi is one of a kind and his wizardry with the ball, which best captures the essence of the 'beautiful game', has even caught the fancy of his country's biggest rival in international football.
Argentina striker Lionel Messi has found admirers in Argentina and Brazil alike. Pic/ AFP
From one of their very own legends, Ronaldo, to a group of drunken youths roaming the streets of Rio de Janeiro at the dead of night, the just-turned 27-year-old man with boyish looks has been the buzzword for a while now.
Ronaldo had said that Messi would be the first player chosen by him if he could include a foreign player in Brazil's national team. "If Messi did not play for Argentina, I would love to have him (with us). I would prefer Messi to Diego (Maradona), even though Diego is also my friend," Ronaldo had said.
Then there was a lookalike of another Selacao great, Ronaldinho, who was escorted off the field after an attempt to get closer to the Barcelona star during one of Argentina's open training session in Belo Horizonte recently. Messi tops the goal chart with four goals to his name alongside Brazil's Neymar.
The admiration that Messi is earning in Brazil is in stark contrast to the hostile rivalry the two teams share on the football field. And it appears set to get better with his double strike paving the way for Argentina's qualification into the pre-quarterfinals of the ongoing tournament as group leader. Fans sporting Messi's number 10 jersey or showering praises on the genius from Rosario has become a normal thing in the host cities of Rio, Belo Horizonte or Sao Paulo.
"Messi is good, a great player and we acknowledge that. Though a lot of people in Brazil don't like Argentina for obvious reasons, Messi gets the respect he deserves," said Stella, a tourist guide who has already watched two games at the Maracana Stadium in the ongoing World Cup. "Neymar is going to be a great but I prefer Messi as of now. He is being overburdened. If Argentina are to do anything in the World Cup, Messi needs to get the support the way he gets in Barcelona," another Brazilian said.
Asked about the rivalry, he said, "It is probably because of the fact that like us, Argentina has also got a rich football tradition producing talented players. So Brazil wants to beat them. Even this time around, it will be great if Brazil play Argentina in the final and we end up winning." "We don't like Argentina for sure and that's why we want to beat them in the final. But I really like Messi because he is such a good player. We have no problems with him," said 23-year-old Brasilia-based professional Jessica.
Messi's is an exceptional case and the Argentine supporters, who have come here in large numbers and are acquainted with hostile receptions that they often get here, just as the Brazilians face when they visit their rivals' den, know it well. "We have not won a World Cup for 28 years and I hope they win it this time around with Messi leading by example," said Matias Jesus Garcia of Buenos Aires.
With Messi once again guiding the team to a 3-2 win over Nigeria in their last round robin fixture for a place in the last 16 stage, Garcia doesn't sound far-fetched.