BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — A steakhouse in the trendy Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo was mobbed by hundreds of frenzied soccer fans late Monday night when word spread that Lionel Messi was inside having dinner.
People rushed to the exclusive Don Julio restaurant eager to get a glimpse of the man who led Argentina to its third World Cup title. Messi eventually needed a police escort to leave.
Fans on the street corner chanted “Messi, Messi” and sang the words to “Muchachos,” which became the unofficial anthem for the Argentina squad that beat France in a thrilling final in Qatar.
The scene witnessed in the neighborhood of Argentina’s capital known for its bars and restaurants illustrates how Messi has now become like the late Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to its second World Cup trophy in 1986, and he can no longer walk through Argentina’s streets without being mobbed.
It wasn’t always this way.
The man who is now cheered wherever he goes once used to suffer the indifference and even apathy from many Argentina fans who blamed him for the country’s failings in previous championships. All that vitriol led the man who is often called the best soccer player in the world to even quit the national team in 2016, although he later backtracked.
All of that now seems to be forgotten as Messi fever has decidedly taken over, recalling what happened with Maradona 36 years ago after he raised the World Cup in Mexico. The then-captain also had to deal with fans who chased him wherever he went in the hopes of getting a photograph or an autograph.
On Monday night, the multitude was so great that police officers had to arrive at the restaurant to accompany the 35-year-old Messi to his vehicle while keeping fans at bay.
Images and video posted on social media showed the furor of the fans who seemed willing to do anything to greet and touch the Paris Saint-Germain player. “Messi I love you” and “Thank you, Leo” were just a few phrases that could be heard as he was escorted out of the restaurant.
“Thank you for looking at me captain, I can die in peace,” one user wrote on Twitter accompanied by a video that showed a smiling Messi being escorted as people shouted “I love you!”
Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni celebrated the Messi mania that has been unleashed in Buenos Aires and across the country.
“What Leo is experiencing is beautiful because he deserves all that love, him and all the players who are here,” Scaloni said at a news conference Tuesday. “Leo also needs to see that people love him and what happens when he comes here. I think it’s beautiful, it will stay with him forever.”
Messi arrived in Argentina on Monday to celebrate the World Cup title with a friendly match against Panama on Thursday in Buenos Aires. The 63,000 tickets sold out in a flash.
Security officials are not revealing any details about how the team will travel to the stadium out of fear that fans will block roads and ultimately block the passage of the players. There are rumors the players could travel via helicopter.
After winning the World Cup title in December, a planned celebratory open-top bus ride throughout the city had to be cut short as millions of fans made it impossible for the bus to advance.
The adulation that Messi is receiving comes at a time when his future at PSG remains uncertain and is in sharp contrast to the anger that many fans of the French team feel toward the Argentine player. Shortly before he was cheered in Buenos Aires, the World Cup champion was whistled by PSG fans who blamed him for the team’s 2-0 loss against Rennes.
Messi has yet to say what he will do after June 30, when his contract is set to expire.
For now though, he’ll enjoy the adoration of Argentine fans as the team will play another friendly match against Curaçao on March 28 in Argentina’s central Santiago del Estero province.