This wasn’t quite the case here at Estadio Nacional on Saturday, where Messi’s Argentina faced Belgium in the World Cup quarterfinals. No, the crowd let its intentions be known from the first minute, with Belgium’s passes loudly cheered and Messi’s first run with the ball being met by boos that filled the stadium.
This wasn’t a case of Belgians traveling in the thousands to Brazil to cheer on their team, but rather a case of Brazilian fans hoping desperately to see Belgium defeat Brazil’s arch rival and spare this country the nightmare of seeing Argentina lift the World Cup trophy in Rio de Janeiro in a week.
Argentina moved one step closer to to realizing that dream on Saturday, riding an early Gonzalo Higuain goal and some stingy defending to a 1-0 victory over the Belgians. Messi played his part on the goal, forcing the turnover before sparking the counter that culminated in Higuain’s quick-thinking winner.
PHOTOS: U.S. fan reactions | Beautiful people in Brazil
The Brazilian fans in attendance, and you could estimate that half the stadium was made up of locals, spent the next 82 minutes urging Belgium on and trying to shout down the enthusiastic Argentina fans, who would not be denied their chance to push their team on to its first World Cup semifinal since 1990.
Brazilians rooting so passionately against Argentina wasn’t just about the rivalry though. You see, this is supposed to be Brazil’s World Cup, or at least it was supposed to be before Camilo Zuniga’s knee flew into Neymar’s back on Friday night, fracturing a vertebrae and leaving even the most die-hard Brazilian fans fearing that, much like 1950, they wouldn’t see their team win the World Cup on home soil.
Brazilians aren’t necessarily defeatists, but realists. With Neymar sidelined, and captain Thiago Silva suspended for Tuesday’s semifinal against Germany, Brazil suddenly looks like an underdog rather than a favorite.
Perhaps that gave Brazilians here a little extra reason to cheer for Belgium, and root against Argentina, a team that suddenly looks to have as good a chance as anybody of winning another World Cup. Maybe that is why, arguably more so than at any other World Cup match this tournament that didn’t feature Brazil, the Argentina-Belgium match was full pro-Brazil songs as the locals chanted Neymar’s name repeatedly as if the injured star were on the field next to his Barcelona teammate Messi.
Neymar wasn’t here though. Only Messi and his magical skill and the smothering expectations that follow his every step at this World Cup. At a tournament where Cristiano Ronaldo flopped, Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t qualify and Neymar was injured in the quarterfinals, Messi stands as its biggest star by a mile. He has to know this could be his best chance to add a World Cup to a loaded resume missing, really, just that one thing.
Messi did his part on Saturday. Not only helping set up the winner, but posing a threat throughout the match with his impossibly quick moves and tireless effort. He did miss a chance to put the match away with a stoppage-time breakaway, only to be denied by familiar foe Thibault Courtois, but the final whistle blew soon after, sending Argentina to a Wednesday semifinal in Sao Paulo.
Suddenly, Messi finds himself two steps away from realizing his own World Cup dream, which would put an end to the talk about him needing to win one to be an all-time legend. It won’t be easy though. Not with Sergio Aguero injured, and not if the knock that forced Angel DiMaria out of Saturday’s match proves to be serious. If that is the case, Messi will have to carry even more of the attacking burden on a team that won by defending resolutely on Saturday rather than by attacking in waves.
The tournament’s attention now turns to the semifinals, where Brazilians will be hoping that their team can somehow win without its best attacker and best defender. If Brazil can somehow manage that, we just might be able to see the dream Brazil-Argentina final that seemed destined to happen since the World Cup draw took place.
If Brazil falls to Germany, however, then Brazilian fans will have no choice but to keep on cheering against Argentina, and hoping someone can keep Messi, his team and his country from celebrating on Brazilian soil. It doesn’t matter which team, whether Germany, or the winner between Netherlands and Costa Rica. As far as most Brazilians are concerned, "Anybody but Argentina' might as well be adopted as a national slogan for the coming week.
As Estadio Nacional emptied after Saturday’s match, and the thousands of yellow jerseys faded into the midday sun, fans in the familiar light blue stripes of Argentina began converging on the northeast corner of the stadium. Slowly, but surely, they converged from all areas of the building, eventually forming their own sea of Argentinian pride. They sang songs, waved flags and banners and soaked in the emotions of finally reaching the World Cup semifinals after 24 years.
There was nothing Brazilians could do to stop the celebration, and if Messi and his teammates have anything to say about it, that won’t be the last time we see Argentinians celebrating in the home of their arch rival.