Beijing (AFP) – Hundreds of jubilant fans greeted Lionel Messi as he arrived on Saturday in Beijing, where his World Cup-winning Argentina will face Australia in a friendly match next week.
“Messi! Messi!” chanted several hundred fans who were waiting for the football superstar at the airport, many wearing the blue-and-white striped jersey of the Albiceleste’s No 10, according to social media images.
Several hundred others waited outside the team’s hotel, not far from the banks of the Liangma River, popular with Beijingers for strolls.
This is Messi’s seventh trip to China, the last being in 2017, according to local media.
Several banners written in Spanish and English welcomed the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner at the hotel.
“I waited from 9 am to noon,” said Liu Yuheng, who wore the jersey of Barcelona, the club where Messi spent most of his career.
“I thought he would come through the main door but not through the back door. I was a little disappointed not to see him,” the 26-year-old told AFP.
“As I couldn’t buy a ticket for the game, I booked a room in the same hotel as Messi and was hoping to catch a glimpse of him.”
World champions Argentina will play a friendly against Australia on June 15 at Beijing’s newly renovated 68,000-capacity Workers’ Stadium.
By midday, the star’s arrival was the most talked-about topic on the Weibo social network.
“I absolutely want to see Messi!” wrote one user, echoing others’ comments.
“I am still feeling the emotions of the match when Argentina secured the World Cup,” said another, referring to the team’s victory after an epic final against France in December.
The friendly will mark the return of international football to China, after three years of strict Covid-19 restrictions that emptied stadiums and led to a cascade of cancellations of sporting competitions.
The clash will be a rematch of the round of 16 at the World Cup, where Argentina won 2-1 against the Socceroos.
Messi, who has chosen to leave Paris Saint-Germain over the summer to pursue his career with Inter Miami, will also play another friendly match, when Argentina take on Indonesia in Jakarta on June 19, as part of this tour.