It was the kind of astonishing run that the world has come to expect from those who don Argentina’s iconic number 10 football shirt.
From the corner of the pitch, the fleet-footed figure eludes one challenger and leaves two others trailing hopelessly in his wake as he sprints along half the pitch and high-fives his side’s goalkeeper, all to cheers from the onlookers.
But this stunning display of athleticism on display during Argentina’s friendly with Australia in Beijing on Thursday was not by Lionel Messi – although the man widely regarded as the world’s best player did his own share of crowd-pleasing to scored his fastest goal everin just 79 seconds.
It was by a young Chinese pitch invader, eager to meet his hero, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Videos that have gone viral on Chinese social media show the young fan leaping from the stands before sprinting towards the Argentina forward – who, like him, was wearing the number 10 shirt – and giving him a hug. The clips show Messi, who initially appears shocked, stretches out his arms and hugs the fan back.
By Han Guan/AP
A Chinese fan runs onto the pitch to hug soccer superstar Lionel Messi during a friendly match between Argentina and Australia at the Worker’s Stadium in Beijing on June 15.
As the crowd cheers, three security guards give chase, the first of whom falls as the young fan evades his grasp. The fans then raise their hands as he outruns the other two guards and high-fives Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez. It is only after the flag finally falls on its own that security finally catches up with him and leads him back to the stands where he is greeted as a hero.
For many spectators, the brief interlude was one of the most entertaining moments in an event that has sparked interest across China since the 35-year-old Messi arrived in Beijing on Saturday.
On Chinese social media, many users – soccer fans or otherwise – celebrated the young fan’s sprint across the pitch as a liberating moment.
For some, his daring dash through security lines has become a symbol of freedom and youthful vitality in a society still reeling from the trauma of three years of Covid restrictions and feeling the pressure of a slowing economy.
“This kind of running is exactly what is missing in the increasingly desolate souls of the Chinese people,” reads the headline on a widely circulated comment on WeChat, which was later censored.
But even before the fan’s antics, interest in the event had been sky high.
Tickets for the match at the 68,000-capacity Workers’ Stadium, which cost up to $4,800 yuan ($670), sold out within 20 minutes, according to Chinese state media Global Times, with sellers advertising tickets online at several times their face value.
Messi and his teammates were temporarily “caught” at their hotel in Beijing over the weekend after a large number of fans gathered outside, Chinese state media reported.
Interest has been so great that local police have warned members of the public to be wary of scammers trying to sell fake tickets or fake chances to meet the superstar.
Several unofficial social media accounts have claimed to offer VIP stadium passes, front-row seats and autographed shirts, often at very high prices, while one viral – and fake – ad claimed to offer dinner options with Messi for 300,000 yuan ($42,000) per person .
Beijing’s Public Security Bureau dismissed the ad on its official Weibo account, joking: “If you can be cheated of 300,000 yuan, then our police will raise a glass to you.”
The young pitch invader is carried off the pitch by security officials during a match at the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing, China on June 15.
On the field, Argentina eventually prevailed 2-0, although perhaps for other reasons it will be remembered most.
In a series of clips posted online after the match, the fan, who claimed to be under 18, apologized to his hero for his “bad behaviour”.
“Messi, I’m sorry… I’m really sorry to meet you like this. I really wanted your autograph but they chased me so I didn’t ask for it,” he said.
But he was less apologetic to the security guards he left in his wake.
“I also hope to use my negative case to tell the security staff that your security work is not competent and gave me such an opportunity,” he said, urging the authorities to step up their game before the Chinese capital hosts its next international sporting event .
While pitch attackers can be banned under a disciplinary code regulated by FIFA (Fédération Internationale De Football Association), it is unclear whether the fan will be punished by Chinese authorities.
On Monday, a Chinese state media outlet weighed in, saying in an editorial that while the fan’s passion was understandable, it did not support his behavior, adding that it would disrupt matches and endanger security.
Argentina next travel to Jakarta for a friendly against Indonesia on June 19.