There’s a young boy named Rafael Yen living in football-obsessed Brazil, who is only eight years old and has a deep-rooted passion for the sport. Despite the nationwide love for Brazilian football, the youngster is faced with a predicament that not even his father can help solve.
The quandary revolves around whether Rafael should sport an Argentina jersey to cheer for Lionel Messi, his most admired player, during the World Cup qualifying match set to take place at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday.
Rafael’s love for Messi, the recipient of eight Ballon d’Or titles, runs so deep that he regularly beds down wrapped in Argentina’s colors.
To illustrate another dimension of his fandom, he excitedly donned an Inter Miami jersey when his football idol joined the Major League Soccer side. Rafael, anticipating the striker’s possible last display at the historic Maracana, convinced his father to let him witness this potentially monumental match.
Fans like Rafael find themselves in a delicate situation. Their love for their homeland doesn’t wane, but their admiration for the phenomenal Messi blurs the lines. They don’t want Brazil defeated by Argentina, but the excitement of watching Messi weave through opponents, strike, and potentially net a goal is too compelling to resist.
Over the years, Messi has amassed a significant number of admirers in Brazil, not just for his exceptional footballing prowess, but also for the opulence of respect he showed towards the five-time world champs.
As a testament to their affection, many Brazilians jubilantly basked in the glory of Argentina’s latest World Cup victory. A gesture that would have been far-fetched during the reign of the sometimes controversial figure, Diego Maradona.
Messi, who undoubtedly still relishes the sweet taste of being a World Cup winner, hasn’t shared any plans about when he intends to hang up his boots. While there are expectations that he will be among those defending the Copa America title in the United States the forthcoming year, speculations persist about his pursuit of a second World Cup trophy at the ripe age of 38.
Many Brazilians among the 69,000 spectators at the Maracana would delight in witnessing Messi score his first competitive goal against their homeland, one of the very few feats the legend has yet to conquer, despite having scored five times in friendly bouts.
Ahead of the match, both Argentina and Brazil staggered in their respective World Cup qualifiers last week. Brazil suffered a 2-1 loss to Colombia, while Argentina faced a home defeat against Uruguay, scoring no goals to their opponents’ two.
Despite this setback, Argentina retains the lead in the 10-team South American qualifying group with an advantageous 12 points. Brazil is treading water, sitting somewhat uncomfortably in fifth place with seven points.
The top six teams in this South American qualifying group will automatically secure their places in the 2026 World Cup, to be held in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Notably, this will be the first World Cup fixture to host 48 teams, making the abundance of slots from this region, a slight relief amid the competitive race.
Another angle of the story is the absence of some key Brazilian players due to injuries– the likes of Neymar, Vinicius Júnior, and Casemiro. Therefore, some of the pressure is off, considering the high volume of qualifiers in light of the expanded World Cup format.
Not all Messi devotees will be fortunate enough to get a seat in the iconic stadium, and thus, many will be supporting their hero from their living rooms. Among these fans is Quincas Rodriguez, a history teacher, who along with his 10-year-old triplets Leon, Bento, and Joaquim, couldn’t secure tickets to the highly anticipated match.
It’s fascinating to reflect on how the perception of Messi has changed among Brazilian fans over the years. Rewind to nine years ago, and you’d find that the Argentine’s fanbase was significantly smaller when Argentina faced defeat against Germany in the 2014 World Cup final at the Maracana.
In fact, an enthusiastic supporter traded the opportunity to see pop-phenomenon Taylor Swift perform live in Rio and rather chose to watch Messi’s performance on the field this time. Showing the gravitas and magnetic attraction of Messi’s soccer talent have on permeating throttleholds.
As covered by The Associated Press, these viewpoints and stories reflect the complex and diverse feelings of soccer fans in Brazil, highlighting how their admiration for individual players can sometimes transcend national borders and traditional rivalries, even in the passionate world of football.