Pablo Zabaleta feels like a little bit of Buenos Aires has come to Qatar given the way Argentina fans have flocked to the Middle East to support Lionel Messi in his quest for glory at his last World Cup.
From flags along Al Wakrah beach to drumming on metros running through Doha, la Albiceleste’s fervent support outweighs any other nation at the winter tournament.
Argentina also feel like one of the neutral’s favourites in Qatar thanks to the pull of star turn Messi, with the 35-year-old admitting last month that this is likely to be his fifth and final World Cup.
“It’s like being in Buenos Aires,” former Argentina full-back Zabaleta, who played alongside Messi in the 2014 World Cup final loss to Germany, told the PA news agency.
“It’s something that, to be honest, I’m very surprised about because Qatar is far from Argentina. It’s not easy to get here you know and it costs a lot money in flights, accommodation.
“But I think it’s because of the moment of the team before the World Cup – winning the Copa America, 36 games unbeaten – expectation was really high and probably Messi’s last World Cup as well.
“People just want to come on and enjoy probably the last few games of Messi in a World Cup.
“I think I can see that Messi is enjoying every single minute of it.
“The fans and everyone back in Argentina are showing so much love for Messi and it would be brilliant to see Messi going into the World Cup final again.
“We’ve been very close in 2014. We know how much it means for Messi playing and representing his country. It won’t be easy. That’s the reality.”
Messi has scored three goals in Qatar so far but a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia had fans fearing the tournament could be over at the group stage.
Lionel Scaloni’s side rallied to beat Mexico and Poland to win their group and edged past Australia in the round of 16 to set up a mouthwatering quarter-final clash against the Netherlands.
“Many games in the previous World Cups that’s been always like special games against Netherlands – the final in 1978 in Argentina, 98 in France, 2014 as well,” said Zabaleta, who will be in the BBC studio for their match coverage.
“It’s going be hard, a tough game for Argentina, but obviously we all expect they can put in a good performance and win the game and reach the semi-final.”
Argentina would face 2018 semi-finalists Croatia or neighbours Brazil if they overcome the Netherlands on Friday, meaning any meeting with England could only come in the December 18 finale.
Zabaleta believes there is a chance that could happen, with the Manchester City great saying Gareth Southgate’s side are among the favourites to win the trophy.
“I think that the squad depth of England is probably the main strength of that team,” he said.
“I you look at how many talented players they have, especially in the final third, it’s incredible. Two or three top players in basically each position.
“Up front you can change three players and still have really, really strong players, so that’s something that not many teams have the chance to do.
“I think it was a nightmare for Southgate to find always the strongest teams because (Marcus) Rashford has been incredible, scored two goals and then next game being dropped and that wouldn’t happen in other teams.
“But he’s just been replaced by (Bukayo) Saka, who is one of the best players of that England side and has been incredible for Arsenal.
“You have (Phil) Foden as well. I think Harry Kane is the only one to play every single game because he’s the captain, he’s a great number nine, a great striker and if he’s fit and he’s OK, you always have to play.
“But then in wide areas you have plenty of options. Right-back spot the same.
“I think there’s big chances for England. Now they have a big, big game against France but I think England is probably top three, top four favourites to win the World Cup.”
:: Pablo Zabaleta will be in the studio for BBC One & BBC iPlayer’s live coverage of Netherlands v Argentina on Friday at 7pm.
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