Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s biggest soccer star, practices with the Argentina national team at Georgetown University in preparation for Saturday’s game against El Salvador at FedEx Field. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The fence dividing the superstar from his superfans was tall, thick, metal — and flexible.

“If we pull two of the bars wide, I bet I can fit through,” one of the fans said as he looked onto the soccer field. On the other side of the bars stood one of the world’s great athletes. Lionel Messi, hero of Barcelona and Argentina, four-time world ­player of the year, living proof that soccer is a sport and an art, here in the District for the first time in his career.

Here, too, was Brian Pacheco, 21, a Best Buy employee, college student and Argentina fan since birth. And so the bars bent, and in went Pacheco’s arm, then his leg, then the light blue No. 10 jersey, and then he was off, sprinting toward his hero.

The hundreds who surrounded the closed practice at the Georgetown University field — or rather, the fences and gates blocking off the field — watched him run, hoping he might succeed for the rest of them.

“Go, go, go, go, man!”

Lawyers and janitors,
stay-at-home moms and social media consultants, preschoolers and store owners — all ditching work or any other plans for a glimpse of Messi.

He is in Washington with the Argentina national team for the week, practicing at Georgetown during the days before a game against El Salvador on Saturday at FedEx Field.

The game itself probably will lack excitement, given that the teams are so unfairly matched. But just the presence of No. 10 has been enough to launch Messimania across the city, with fans hiding behind trees to sneak into his practices, running after his van at the Ritz-Carlton and ­angling to snap photos of themselves with the star in blurry distance at a Washington Wizards game.


Fans line the fence to get a look at Messi and his teammates at Georgetown University. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

They know that the only time to spot Messi is when he’s with his team. The 27-year-old isn’t the type of star jock to hang out at bars or nightclubs. You won’t even catch him on a mid-range shopping spree, like members of Spain’s national team at a D.C. Victoria’s Secret last summer. And that’s exactly why he is loved.

Messi fans share a set of words to describe him: humble, hard-working, a family man. He’s said to be devoted to his parents, his hometown buddies, his longtime girlfriend and their young son. The image of Futbol Club Barcelona — the team he plays for when not representing his home country of Argentina — is all about humility, effort and clean aesthetics. This was the team that prided itself for years on not having advertising on its jerseys, explains Aaron Plantenberg, vice president of D.C.’s Barcelona fan club. The way Messi plays — low to the ground, weaving through spaces other players wouldn’t see, gliding passes with exact timing — is the style the community prides itself on now.

“If you said that one person in the organization has to leave the club — the president, the coach, the longest-serving player — the last person who would be chosen to leave would be Messi,” Plantenberg said.


Soccer fans stand on buckets to get a glimpse of Messi at Georgetown University. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Eager to distinguish Messi from rival superstar Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid, fans tout their hero’s humble ­beginnings.

As a quiet but talented child, he was diagnosed with a hormone deficiency that would stunt his growth. His steelworker father couldn’t afford the treatment. Despite the prowess he had shown on the field, no local team would pay. But after a former Barcelona player flew to Argentina to scout the young Messi, the team agreed to move his family to Spain, enter the 13-year-old into its training ­program and pay for his treatment. He never grew much past 5 1/2 feet tall, but his size has only made him more endearing.

“Now, he appreciates everything he has today,” said Othman Chebli, a Moroccan-born Department of Transportation engineer watching Messi from a campus building. “Because it almost didn’t happen.”

When he walked on the field Wednesday, Messi waved an arm at the insistent screaming of Giovanni Nicolacci of Chevy Chase, Md. Messi! Messi! Mirar por aquí! Look over here!

Nicolacci had pulled his twin sons out of kindergarten to witness how Messi moved his feet, how Messi treated his fans, how Messi was the ultimate humble role model, even for 6-year-olds.


Messi signs autographs for fans after practice at Georgetown University. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

“This is a culture I want them to learn,” he said, his son Marco in a little Messi jersey, perched on his shoulders. “This sport is a tool to bring happiness to people of all cultures. You have English, French, Italian, Spanish, and soccer is our universal language.”

In D.C., that language is more common than ever. While it was once difficult for Nicolacci to find a place to watch soccer in the area, last summer it was hard to find a bar that did not have the World Cup on TV. Dupont Circle’s Lucky Bar and Foggy Bottom’s Elephant & Castle are among the establishments known as “soccer bars” year-round. At home, the Internet has made it simple to watch games in Europe and South America at any time of day. Even the interest in playing the rest of the world’s favorite sport seems to be at a peak. The adult soccer league District Sports had more than 6,000 participants last season. Director Alex Bearman said that the more they play, the more they get into the global soccer phenomenon.

“We’re catching up with the rest of the world,” Bearman said. “People are living it more than ever before.”

At Georgetown, they lived it by watching Messi commanding the ball like it was an extension of his foot. They lived it by zooming their iPhone cameras to capture blurry proof that they had seen him in real life. And they lived it by watching, open-mouthed, as a 21-year-old Best Buy employee barreled around the bleachers, past security and into Messi’s open arms.

Messi laughed as Pacheco gave him a two-armed hug.

“They’re gonna get you, man,” the player said, accepting a black Sharpie marker to sign the jersey on Pacheco’s chest. Pacheco managed to get the signature of Messi’s teammate Carlos Tevez, too, then sprinted back to his friends waiting at the gate before security could manhandle him out.

He spent the next hour accepting high-fives and posing for photos taken by envious fans.

“You’re my hero, dude!” one told him.

Pacheco beamed and made sure to say thank you. He had learned from his hero how to stay humble.


Messi is mobbed as he gets on the bus with the Argentina national team at Georgetown University. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)