Messi fans from Asia cheer on Argentina
DOHA, Qatar (AP):
On their way to Argentina's decisive game against Poland, Mohit Daga and Aayush Verma approached the stadium carrying a massive painting of their heroes Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona with the World Cup trophy.
Daga had spent 17 days painting it. It weighed 5 kilograms (11 pounds). An offering. Anything for Messi, whom he described as a "god".
"He is the epitome of everything. He is the source of inspiration and happiness," said Daga, who is from Kolkata, India. "He brings happiness to our life."
Argentina is finding a legion of passionate super fans from India, Bangladesh and other Asian countries at the World Cup in Qatar.
Thousands have travelled to the Gulf nation specifically to see Messi and his team with their own eyes, while many others are among migrant workers that make up about 90 per cent of the emirate's population of 3 million.
Other fans cheered from afar. In Indonesia, social media showed hundreds of people celebrating Argentina's team's 2-0 win over Poland after watching the game on large screens. They paraded on motorbikes waving flags after Argentina secured progress to the knockout stages. A newsreader wore an Argentina shirt during a broadcast.
Smitha Issac, originally from India, now living in Qatar, was attending the game with her family, including two sons who were "too excited" to see Messi.
"He is something like messiah," Isaac said. "We are expecting that he will just make something like magic today."
Outside Stadium 974 shortly before kickoff on Wednesday, Argentina fans were still scrambling for any spare tickets to see the game. Demand far outstripped supply for the 44,000-capacity stadium.
Mohammed Haque from Bangladesh, now living in Australia, was one of the lucky ticket holders. He waved a large Argentina flag as he walked toward the floodlit stadium made of shipping containers, approaching it like a holy shrine.
"It's unbelievable," Haque said of seeing Messi for the first time. "I've actually been preparing for the last two or three weeks for this. I had a sleepless night last night."
Argentina has had a big following in Bangladesh since the days of Maradona, one of the greatest to play the game, and an icon to fans around the world.
Fans who had travelled from Argentina to support their team in Qatar were delighted with the support from non-Argentines.
"We love to see other countries showing their love for Messi and Maradona," said Mauricio Neraj from Mendoza, Argentina. He posed for pictures next to the Messi and Maradona painting by Daga outside the stadium.
Argentina's soccer federation praised the support from Bangladeshis on social media on Thursday.
"Thank you for supporting our team. You are as crazy as we are!" the federation said in a Twitter post with photos showing Bangladeshi fans wearing Argentina's sky blue and white jersey.