Thursday, February 29, 2024

Messi mania grips Dhaka

The look of pure unadulterated joy in Mirza Ahmad’s face said it all.
“Can I hug you? Can I?” he asked repeatedly to the beefy Argentinean team member who had kindly volunteered to reward Mirza’s vigil by getting superstar Lionel Messi to sign Mirza’s Argentina shirt.
Mirza was the highlight of the fifty odd brave souls who tried out every perceivable trick in the book to tip-toe around the joint efforts of the stringent police force and the immovable hotel staff at the Ruposhi Bangla hotel to get his hands on an absolutely prized possession.
“I can die happy now,” screamed Mirza and when you saw just how overcome with emotion he was, you would readily forgive his excesses.
“This is something I will pass on to my children,” said Mirza and for a second his force of will made you transcend the border into his world.
“Do you know how long I have supported Argentina? As a young kid I was crying when Maradona was expelled from USA 94. Ever since then, I have been waiting for his second coming.
“There were so many false messiahs, Ortega, Saviola, Riquelme, but Messi… he is the real deal…the Messiah,” says Mirza.
Mirza’s vigil is unique. He is not really a young fanatic. In his 20s, he is working in the Bank of America in South Carolina. By day then, he is a demure banker, all prim and proper. This is his alter-ego; a raw, passionate football fan, whose lifeblood is Argentina and consequently Maradona and Messi.
It is a passion that saw him strategically plan a holiday from the USA around the scheduled friendly against Nigeria and if anything, his own journey has been far longer than the miles he has clocked up on the airplane. And it was a journey not yet completed.
“I plan to spend the night at the hotel. I am going to meet Messi come hell or high water,” he said late last night. Given what he has achieved, who would doubt his determination?
The obsession with Messi was not just limited to Mirza. If anything he was just the tip of the iceberg. There was the young student from Chittagong Grammar School (CGS) who had made the trip up north with his father and was staying at the hotel. He was waiting amongst fifty others at the hotel, camera in hand praying for the right opportunity to snap a photo of his beloved stars.
Bangladesh’s obsession with Argentina is not really a well-documented fact as far as the world media goes. But with almost half of the 160 million people effectively swearing by the colours of the Albiceleste, there is the unique possibility that there are more Argentina fans in Bangladesh than there are in Argentina.
The seeds of this love affair was perhaps sown on a lovely June night in 1986. On that day, Bangladesh was a young nation; barely sixteen. They did not have many heroes, least of all sporting ones, but even as the sun rose to signal the start of another day they had found one: a stocky, curly-haired little magician with a divine left foot and a cheating right hand which had just done the English. Following that win in the World Cup of 1986 over England, Maradona’s position in the pantheon of Bangladeshi sporting heroes was complete.
It is a pedestal he holds to this day. Messi then is Maradona’s true heir; a player with the ability to charm and make others fall in love with the game and for the millions who had idolised Maradona’s every move, Messi is just an extension of that admiration and love.
But just when you thought that the love by Bangladeshis would sweep you away, you meet someone like Scott. A wiry Australian who has a business in Thailand, he made the trip west with a bag full of memorabilia. He has been following the Argentina team around for a number of years, most notably during the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. For him, this would be just another trip with the team he holds so close to his heart.
For the others though, this presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and even the hours of wait did nothing to dampen their excitement. And as Mirza would attest, good things come to those who wait.

-With The Daily Star input

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