Argentina’s fanatical fans turned Times Square blue and white – then their team fought

New York’s Times Square is one of the most recognizable sections of real estate in the world. It looked a lot different with Argentina fans in town.

Police officers unfamiliar with Argentine football culture but accustomed to monitoring peaceful protests stood bewildered as midtown Manhattan turned into an Albiceleste street party.

Tuesday’s ‘banderazo’, a pre-match tradition that encourages fans to fly flags and sing songs that honor the national team, proved that Messi and Argentina are still riding a euphoric wave since winning the World Cup in 2022. Are they now the most popular national team on the planet?

More than 80,000 fans at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey went on to witness a classic South American slugfest between Argentina and Chile. The two nations know each other all too well. Chile won back-to-back Copa America finals against Argentina in 2015 and 2016, but on Tuesday, Lionel Messi’s team got their revenge with a nail-biting 1-0 win that sealed their place in the quarter-finals.

There’s a big difference between a continental final and a group-stage game, but there was something special about this renewed rivalry. Argentina are the world champions and Copa America holders. Their team hotels are surrounded by fans who act like they are hoping to catch a glimpse of the newest pop-rock boy band. The build up to the match against Chile reached new levels of fanatical obsessions.

Messi has legions of followers throughout the world. His admirers come from every corner of the globe, many linked to the Argentina captain since his era-defining 17 seasons at Barcelona. They’ve stuck with him even after Argentina’s painful loss in the 2014 World Cup final to Germany.

After Argentina lost the 2016 Copa America final to Chile at MetLife Stadium, Messi abruptly announced his retirement from international football. But his adoring fans didn’t turn their backs on him then either.

So when Argentina defeated France in a thrilling World Cup final in Qatar two years ago, the love and respect that Messi’s fans have for him tripled. Argentina became what Brazil was in the early 1990s — a world-champion team of stars with a cool factor off the pitch and jogo bonito on it.

Argentina fans packed out Times Square (Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Argentina’s star status on the international stage is reminiscent of the 1998 France team that knocked Brazil off its pedestal, or the Spain teams from the 2000s that went on an incredible run from 2008 to 2012, winning a World Cup and two European Championships.

Argentina are seeking their third straight international trophy since 2021 and their first back-to-back Copa America titles since 1993. Messi is now surrounded by a collection of players who have become global stars in their own right.

In New Jersey, MetLife Stadium was decorated in blue and white. Barely a seat was left unoccupied. Fans from around the world came to see Messi and his mates on their football-themed East Coast tour of the United States. They nearly left without a goal celebration as a stingy Chilean team did their best to spoil the party. Chile were not intimidated by the three stars above Argentina’s badge or the thousands of fans against them; they frustrated Messi in the first half with fouls that went unpunished by lenient Uruguayan referee Andres Matonte.

The match resembled a massive street brawl at times. A draw would have felt like an important moral victory for Chile. Instead, Argentina center forward Lautaro Martinez pounced on a ricocheted shot inside the Chilean penalty area and finished from close range in the 88th minute. Martinez is one of the world’s most in-form strikers.

He scored 24 goals to help Inter Milan win last season’s Serie A title but suffered a confidence-killing goal drought with Argentina, failing to find the back of the net from September 2022 to March this year. He has now scored five goals in five matches for his country.

Will Messi be risked in the final group game? (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I’m happy,” Martinez said. “I’m happy because I scored and helped the team. It had been 16 games without a goal for me, but I’m always willing to contribute however this group needs me to.”

Martinez’s humility is a sharp contrast to the personality of Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. From the stadium’s mixed zone, the Aston Villa man guaranteed that Argentina would win their six games and lift the Copa America.

Argentina is a team of diverse personalities. Together they march like an army of battle-tested soldiers who remain hungry for more hardware. They are led by the softly-spoken Messi, who celebrated his 37th birthday on Monday. “We knew this game would be difficult — every game is,” the Inter Miami forward said. “Our matches against Chile are always tough.”

Messi denied that the hamstring discomfort he felt in the first half had been a result of tackles. “I felt some discomfort in my right hamstring at the beginning of the game,” he said. “It was tight. It wasn’t as loose as it should’ve been. But I was able to finish the game. We’ll see how it goes.”

Messi admitted he has been dealing with a sore throat and fever. His status against Peru in their final group-stage match on June 29 is uncertain.

A trip to Messi’s new hometown of Miami will follow, with another raucous sellout crowd at Hard Rock Stadium a virtual guarantee. But will Messi play or will head coach Lionel Scaloni rest his captain?

Surrounded by New York state troopers in a mixed zone replete with international journalists, Messi showed no signs of slowing down. He smirked when he was told about Emiliano Martinez’s bold prediction.

“He talks like that because he has confidence in himself and in this group,” said Messi. “But we’re the same group of players as before, humble. A team that goes game-by-game. We’re going to fight for this title. Hopefully we can get there.”

(Top photo: Charly Triballeau/Getty Images)

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