Argentina fans swarm team hotel in Atlanta to catch glimpse of Messi before Copa América

ATLANTA – Police sirens blasted loudly on the streets of downtown Atlanta and hundreds of people clad in white and sky blue raised their cellphones into the air, while children climbed on their parents’ shoulders and nearby garbage cans for higher ground.

“Ar-gen-tin-a! Ar-gen-tin-a!” fans of the World Cup champions said in unison, anxiously waiting for beloved soccer star Lionel Messi to step off the team’s bus parked in front of The Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta on Wednesday night.

Messi walked up the stairs to the hotel entrance, briefly waving toward the fans as they chanted his name, the night before Copa América 2024 begins in the United States with Argentina facing Canada at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Thursday.

“Well, we don’t have this in Canada, eh?” said Kevin Rodriguez, who flew in from Ottawa for the game and walked out of a bar next door to experience the commotion.

Messi has revealed in recent interviews he is trying to enjoy each moment because the end of his illustrious soccer career is near. He hasn’t set a retirement date in stone, and says his health will determine if he’ll play in the next World Cup, co-hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

Still, Argentine fans want to soak in all they can from their country’s most famous living icon (yes, to some, even more famous than Pope Francis).

They’ve waited outside the team’s hotel since their arrival Sunday, hoping to get a glimpse of Messi and the reigning Copa América and World Cup champions as they board and exit the team bus for practices this week at Kennesaw State University.

“It’s full of Argentinians. We’re a little crazy, jumping and singing in the street. That is what we do,” said Clemson University researcher Max Ortiz, who is from Argentina and staying at the same hotel ahead of Thursday’s match.

Ortiz, the only one in his family to earn a college degree, made a sign asking Messi: “Leo, your autograph for my dad and brother, please? Could you please leave it in the hotel reception?”

Ortiz also saw Messi play in Barcelona and during his MLS debut with Inter Miami.

“It’s like surreal. He’s an inspiration for all of us on so many levels,” Ortiz said. “He’s a good father. He’s a good husband, good friend. We don’t know him [personally], but Argentinians recognize him for not giving up.”

Thanks to Argentine news outlets, such as TYCSports and DSports, providing live coverage to fans back home, many Argentine fans know exactly when and where to be to see their favorite player and favorite team in whatever city they’re playing.

Many others, walking along Peachtree Center Avenue, see a collection of Argentina jerseys, and hang around to connect with fellow fans.

Argentine midfielder Leandro Paredes and coach Lionel Scaloni shared their appreciation for the fans during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

“For us, they are the strength to keep up and continue competing. We really appreciate their warmth, their companionship, and we hope we can measure up,” Paredes said.

Added Scaloni: “This is a great time to see the national team, and we are very proud of our victories. I hope for them, they can enjoy watching their national team in Copa América. And of course, I thank them for their support.”

Argentine fan Mauro Puliafito always dresses for the occasion – this time in full costume as Lady Liberty with a crown, torch and tablet to honor Copa América being held in the United States for the second time. He’s also quick to show off his tattoos: a portrait of him and Messi inked on the back of his left leg, and Messi’s autograph along on his left forearm.

“I’m living a dream,” said Puliafito, who attended the last three World Cups in Brazil, Russia and Qatar – where he dressed up like a camel in the desert country – and the 2019 Copa América in Brazil.

Giselle Saldana, 54, a provisional translator from Buenos Aires, said Thursday’s match will be the first time she gets to see Messi and the national team play in person.

She has tickets to each potential Copa América match Argentina could play, except the final because she was behind 60,000 others in the Ticketmaster queue.

“It’s visceral. You feel it. It’s totally an out-of-body experience,” Saldana said of being an Argentine fan after they won the World Cup. “I’ve never seen him play live, because in Argentina it’s impossible to get tickets whenever the national team plays. So, for me to get the chance to see him play, considering this is could be his last tournament with the national team, is incredibly exciting. Your heart is pounding all the time. And for me to get the chance to see them is very emotional, too.”

Anna Baez and her daughter Emma, 12, said they would faint if they saw Messi in person. Along with husband, Rodrigo, and 8-year-old son Liam, the family native to Mendoza, Argentina traveled to Atlanta from their home in Rochester, Michigan (about 40 minutes north of Detroit).

Baez and her husband wanted their kids to experience Messi and the national team with their own eyes. They’re already saving money to afford World Cup tickets in two years.

“He’s the best,” Liam Baez said of Messi.

“It’s very exciting. I’m happy to be here. And I’m grateful because I get to see Messi and all of them,” Emma Baez said.

One Westin hotel employee, who wished not to share his name, was able to shake Messi’s hand as he walked by.

“Leo,” Messi said, introducing himself to the employee. “Mucho gusto.”

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