PORTO ALEGRE (AFP) – Lionel Messi turned 27 on Tuesday in the full spotlight of the World Cup, the Argentina superstar receiving birthday wishes from hordes of fans camped outside the team hotel.
Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella and Stephen Keshi, whose Nigeria side nervously await Messi on Wednesday, all joined the festivities.
From the stroke of midnight the internet buzzed with good wishes to the Barcelona legend whose goals against Bosnia-Hercegovina and Iran lifted Argentina into the last 16 ahead of their closing Group F run out at the Beiro-Rio stadium.
“I wished Leo Happy Birthday at midnight,” said Sabella, who will be putting the champagne on ice for after Wednesday’s game when a draw would see Messi and his colleagues top the group and avoid a likely second round date with France.
Argentina are staying at the Hotel Deville in this southern port city where on Tuesday morning fans decked out in the blue and white colours of Argentina gathered to serenade their hero with chants of ‘Happy Birthday’.
Others turned up at the stadium to try and catch a glimpse of their idol as he took part in a pre-match closed training session.
One man happily plotting to ruin Messi’s celebrations is Keshi, who took time out from preparing the African champions, to say: “Happy Birthday Messi, it’s a great day, I wish him a very Happy Birthday, a healthy long life and all his heart’s desire, and we’ll see him to celebrate after the match!”
The Super Eagles boss may not be quite so effusive if Messi produces his third match-winning goal after his show stoppers against Bosnia and a stoppage time wonder strike against Iran so far in Group F.
Little did his parents know it when their baby boy arrived into this world on June 24, 1987 but 27 years later he would be acclaimed as the best player on the planet.
“Leo is venerated in Argentina, he deserves to be,” noted Sabella.
“Every time a player like him comes along of course there’s a dependency on him, you are always dependent on a player like him.
“There is huge pressure on him, it’s normal, but we try to take some off his shoulders.”
The four time World Player of the Year is set to be feted like never before in Wednesday’s game both in and outside the stadium with tens of thousands of Argentinian fans driving across the border to Porto Alegro, the closest World Cup venue to Argentina.
Seconds after midnight, cyberspace exploded with messages of goodwill for the man whose birthday falls on the same day as two other Argentine sporting greats, the late Formula One champion, Juan Manuel Fangio, and the Boca Juniors star Riquelme.
“The good thing about today is the birthday of the world’s best player Lionel Andres Messi,” tweeted Ardiansinho from Guayaquil in Ecuador.
“Happy Birthday King Lio Messi. The best player on the team. Legend.” wrote on his page Tenzin Dorjee Vajara from India.
Castro sent a letter to his mate Maradona, the former Cuban strongman paying tribute to Messi as “the formidable athlete who glorifies the noble people of Argentina”.
Messi’s parents, his wife Antonella Roccuzzo Thiago and his son visited him on Sunday at the squad’s World Cup base camp in Belo Horizonte following the 1-0 win over Iran. Messi’s goal in the first minute of injury time took his tally to 40 goals for Argentina from 88 appearances.
This is his third World Cup and he hasn’t hidden his ambition to lift the only silverware missing from his overladen trophy cabinet which features six Spanish titles, three champions League titles and two Club World Cups. Along the way he has scored 354 goals in 425 outings, including 91 goals in the 2012/2013 season – a milestone in the history of his Catalan club.