Argentine superstar Lionel Messi arrived in Beijing on Saturday for a friendly match before leaving a storied European career to join Major League Soccer side Inter Miami as a free agent.
His arrival was announced in a post on the organising International Football Invitation's official Weibo social media site with a video of players stepping off a plane, ahead of Thursday's Argentina-Australia match in the Chinese capital's recently rebuilt Workers' Stadium.
Messi, who lifted the World Cup in Qatar in December and is widely considered to be one of the game's all-time greats, confirmed this week he will leave French champions Paris St Germain for the U.S. league.
This is the Argentina captain's seventh visit to China and his first since 2017.
He has received a fervent welcome on each of his previous visits to China, which has a huge soccer fan base despite the struggles of the men's national team, who have played at the World Cup only once.
His arrival was a top-trending topic on Chinese social media on Saturday.
“I’m so excited,” said 26-year-old hospital administration worker Guo Wenwen from Guizhou province. Guo has followed Messi since 2014, owns around 30 replica Messi soccer jerseys and regularly posts videos on social media related to the Argentine.
Like many she does not yet have a ticket for the match but she is going to Beijing anyhow to see if she can get one.
“I’m going to Beijing to try to see him,” she told Reuters. “He is my role model, my idol, my spiritual pillar, is the ideal type of company and a source of happiness.”
In Beijing, hundreds of fans wearing replica jerseys queued up for hours at the airport and the hotel where Messi was due to stay, with many providing livestreams on social media and some chanting his name as they hoped to catch a glimpse of him. Some contrasted his popularity with the dim view many have of the men’s national team.
“Many Chinese fans love soccer but the Chinese national team are just so weak,” said Beijing resident Song Gang, 36, who joined the hordes at the hotel on Saturday but like most did not see Messi as he was whisked in a side entrance.
“We hope his visit will have a positive impact for Chinese soccer. But then again, look at the size of our population and our national team has been playing for so many years and the results seem to get worse and worse. I hope they improve.”
Australia and Argentina last met at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in the round of 16, where Messi was among the scorers as his team won 2-1.