Kolkata: Hordes of Indian football fans have camped outside a Kolkata hotel, desperate for a glimpse of superstar Lionel Messi before he leads Argentina out in a friendly against Venezuela on Friday.
Kolkata has been gripped by Messi mania since the Argentinian team arrived for what will be the biggest football match ever held in a country where “sport” often simply refers to cricket.
“The God of football is in town, it’s almost surreal,” Malay Banerjee, a 34-year-old software professional, said as he queued for a ticket at the Salt Lake stadium which is hosting Friday’s game.
“My father, myself and my son are all Argentina fans. For us it is a dream come to true to have the team play in our own backyard,” Banerjee said.
India’s boundless passion for cricket is well documented, but the appetite for football is growing in the South Asian nation of 1.2 billion people and the game is especially popular in West Bengal and its state capital Kolkata.
Visits by top-class foreign teams are rare and there has certainly never been anything to compare with the Argentina-Venezuela contest.
“It can’t get bigger than this,” said housewife and mother-of-two Rumki Bose, 38. “We booked our tickets the day they went on sale. We did not want to take any chance and miss watching this game.”
Around 2,000 fans, many of them decked in Argentina’s strip with Messi’s name and number, thronged Kolkata airport when the 24-year-old Barcelona star flew in early Wednesday.
Most were disappointed as he was whisked away under tight security, but they quickly decamped to the team hotel where many planned to maintain a vigil until the night of the match.
“I have barely been able to sleep the last two nights,” said office worker Rohini Biswas. “I never thought I will get a chance to see him play at one of our stadiums.”
The Fifa-sanctioned friendly will be Messi’s first game as captain of the national side and also marks the first outing for Argentina’s new coach Alejandro Sabella, who replaced Sergio Batista after a disappointing campaign in July’s Copa America.
The two-time World Cup winners lost to eventual winners Uruguay in the quarter-finals.
“Messi is not only the best player of Barcelona but the world as well,” Sabella told a pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
“He will have a very important role to play for Argentina as we pursue our World Cup dreams. He is a lot more important than me.”
Messi has struggled to replicate his astonishing club form for Barcelona on the international scene, but Sabella argued that comparisons were misplaced.
“Barcelona is the best team in the world and the players have been playing together for a long time, so they understand each other really well. Comparing Messi’s various performances would be unfair,” he said.
Venezuela go into the contest on the back of their best-ever showing in the Copa America, reaching the semi-finals before losing to Paraguay on penalties.
The Venezuelans, ranked 44th in the world to Argentina’s 9th — India are 158th — will also be keen to avenge a 4-1 away friendly defeat to the former world champions in March.