Lusail, Qatar – At Qatar’s largest football venue, Lusail Stadium, there was little doubt who called the tunes: Argentina fans far outnumbered Saudi Arabia’s supporters as the two countries’ men’s national teams took on each other in their opening World Cup 2022 match.
From the metro station corridors to the stands inside the stadium – whose design is inspired by the fanar lantern – it was a sea of blue and white as Argentinians and many of the Albiceleste supporters burst into song and chants of “Vamos Argentina” (Let’s go Argentina).
“Our fans are the best,” Mariano Alvarez, a fan from Rosario, the hometown of Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi, told Al Jazeera. “I know I’m biased but really we don’t let money or work stop us from travelling to support our team,” he said.
“For us, football is a like religion … together with Christianity,” added the 52-year-old, who is attending his second World Cup after Brazil in 2014.
Like thousands of other Argentinians at the stadium, Alvarez had to travel for nearly 24 hours to reach Qatar in a cumbersome journey that included transit in Spain.
In contrast, the Saudi fan figures pale in comparison despite Saudi Arabia being Qatar’s neighbour to the west and sharing a land border.
In addition to those who flew in from Argentina, people from countries such as India, Pakistan, Egypt and Malaysia were among the enthusiastic crowd supporting Messi and his teammates.
As fans streamed towards the nearly 80,000-strong stadium, a Doha-based music group called Qatar Mayyappada welcomed them with drums and percussion – side by side with a group of Argentina fans who had brought their own musical instruments and speakers to uplift the crowd that gathered in the dozens around them.
“[Late Argentinian footballer Diego] Maradona and Messi unite the world,” 26-year-old Ashiq Siddiq, from India, told Al Jazeera inside Legtaifiya metro station, where he and other Argentina supporters were chatting furiously about the team’s formation and strategy ahead of the game.
Messi’s ‘last chance’
The tournament in Qatar will be Messi’s fifth World Cup, and likely his last.
The 35-year-old, regarded by many as the world’s best footballer, will be hoping to build on Argentina’s Copa America triumph last year and win the one trophy that has eluded him so far in his illustrious career.
“This is the year,” said Alejandro Fronto, an Argentina fan who believes this is Messi’s best chance to help his team win the trophy. “Messi will not play again after this in another World Cup,” added Fronto.
“He can do it, I believe. The team is more united than previous tournaments. They just won the Copa America last year so there is belief in the team.”
Fronti said with a strong squad that also features the talents of players such as Rodrigo De Paul and Angel De Maria, Argentina will be hard to beat.
“I only worry about Brazil”.
On how Tuesday’s encounter will unfold, an optimistic Fronti said it will be “devastating” for Saudi Arabia, predicting Argentina will beat the six goals that England scored against Iran.
Saudi fans, however, did not seem nervous but were hopeful their team would cause an upset.
“It’s going to be 1-1,” Mohammed Shaks told A Jazeera at Lusail Stadium, cracking a cheeky smile as his friends burst out laughing.
“Many people know Argentina, but Saudi Arabia is the best team in Asia … I’m telling, there will be a surprise,” he said.
However, the 29-year-old, draped in a Qatari and Saudi flag, said even if they lose, he is just glad to be at this game.
“I will at least get to see Messi in Qatar, which is like my second home,” he says, noting that many Saudis like him have family in the host country with whom they are staying.