Argentina invasion is on in Rio, whether host nation likes it or not

Argentine football fans drive past riot police in Rio
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RIO DE JANIERO – By the time the dilapidated RV hauled away, by the time everyone came down from the trees, by the time the horns and drums were lugged off the beach, by the time the buzz from all the fernet con cocas started to wear off, by the time the Policia dispersed, it was clear:

This was Argentina's Woodstock.

Perhaps the greatest soccer celebration in the nation's post-1986 history took place on Saturday afternoon, and it happened on the sands of the hated enemy.

Maybe it happened because it was on the sands of the hated enemy.

"It was Argentina in Rio," said Alejandro O'Reilly of Buenos Aires, grinning wide.

What was covered in Brazil yellow and green for the FanFest at Copacabana on Thursday was plastered in sky blue and white here on this sunny afternoon. Just about anyone who wasn't wearing the team jersey wasn't wearing any shirt at all. The bash spilled out into the streets, and police had to surround the mob, as if a true invasion was occurring. (There was even a Falkland Islands flag spotted.) A reported 4,000 fans showed up.

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Argentina fans gather on Copacabana Beach on Saturday. (AP Photo)

Argentina fans gather on Copacabana Beach on Saturday. (AP Photo)

It wasn't just the notorious soccer hooligans, or barras. There were rich fans, poor fans, and plenty of families – all waving flags or wrapping flags around their heads (or both). Songs echoed along the beachside buildings, all dotted with Brazil flags.

Word of the party reached all the way to the team press conference at Maracana stadium, where Lionel Messi and his compatriots will face Bosnia-Herzegovina Sunday night in the team's opening match. When told of the mob on the beach, goalie Sergio Romero's eyes went wide in amazement. Coach Alejandro Sabella simply said to tell the fans, "Thank you."

"We have such high hopes this time around," said Alexis Hoffman, 40, who brought his 8-year-old son Pedro to the beach Saturday. "We believe we have the best fixture, the best draw in many, many World Cups. We don't cross Brazil or Spain until the semifinals."

[Related: Argentine soccer fans get rowdy in Rio ]

The contrast with the vibe Brazil fans are feeling is notable. There is a bit of a cloud hanging over this. There are the protests, then there is the fact that the defense didn't play all that well in the opener on Thursday against Croatia, and then there is the weight of the past: Brazil was notoriously upset by Uruguay in the final in 1950 – the last time the World Cup was played here.

Meanwhile, the Argentines are exultant, even though fan favorite Carlos Tevez was shockingly left off the roster this time around. A lot of people drove up for the party (including the vintage 1970s RV with the flags flying from its antennas) and many arrived here without tickets to a single match. It's hardly a home stand for Argentina, but the idea of facing Brazil for the World Cup title in its own "sacred temple" is too delicious not to think about.

"If Argentina and Brazil go to the finals," Hoffman said, "the ghosts of 1950 will be hovering all over the place. If we win, it would be tragic for Brazil – too devastating for them to deal with.

"And for me it would be the best thing in my life."

It would also be the best thing in Messi's life, and the most needed. He is arguably the best player in the world, and yet in Argentina he's polarizing. He is not overly emotional, not overly expressive, and not overly successful in his national jersey. On Saturday, the team was asked to bring one player to the pre-match press conference, and the obvious choice was No. 10.

[Related: Messi: Compare me to Maradona when I've won the World Cup ]

But No. 10 did not appear.

"That's why he'll never compare to Maradona," one reporter spat.

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Alejandro Sabella instructs Lionel Messi during practice at Maracana Stadium on Saturday. (Getty Images)

Alejandro Sabella instructs Lionel Messi during practice at Maracana Stadium on Saturday. (Getty Images)

Ah, the Maradona comparison. It's the equivalent of LeBron vs. MJ in the U.S., except that much more intense. Diego Maradona has won a World Cup for his nation, in 1986, and Messi has not yet come close. So unless and until Messi matches the master, he's an also-ran.

"If Messi does it, he'll be considered the best ever," Hoffman declared. "If he doesn't, in 20 years he'll be forgotten and Maradona will not."

Sabella said it was part of his job to "protect" Messi, but there will be no protecting him starting on Sunday. With the favorable draw, the weight on host Brazil, and the invasion of fans, this is surely Messi's best chance at destiny. Argentina's defense isn't spectacular, but this has been a wild tournament so far and an attacking team has a great chance of winning it.

[Related: Who some Argentina fans still aren't sold on Messi ]

As long as Messi leads, the party will follow.

It has already been a thrilling Father's Day weekend for Hoffman, who was 12 when his countrymen danced in the streets to celebrate the World Cup in 1986.

"I'll never forget that," he said. "The amount of people. Everybody hugging. It was pretty shocking for a 12 year-old."

He turned to face Pedro, realizing his boy is 8 years old – almost the same age.

"You'll never forget this experience."

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