Emotion is still an integral part of Argentina’s game, but it seems to be driving us more than ever in this World Cup, with a place in the final just around the corner.
Winning this tournament again after our triumphs in 1978 and 1986 still means a lot to our players and our fans because of the importance of football to our culture, but this time I think we are witnessing a desperation for success that is even unlike anything I experienced playing for the national team.
The excitement is always huge at home when we have the chance to win any competition, but the reason I feel it so much here too is because so many Argentinian fans have come to Qatar.
The stadiums for all of our matches were three-quarters full of our fans, creating an incredible atmosphere and giving our players tremendous support.
It’s been like a big adventure for them, and it’s great to see – and to hear. They don’t just sing and dance for 90 minutes, they start an hour before the game and stay that long after, and keep making noise.
They are here for two reasons; partly because our 36-game unbeaten streak prior to the start of the tournament had raised expectations, but mostly because this is likely Lionel Messi’s last chance to win the World Cup.
The rest of the team knows it too, of course, as well as the fans. Messi leads this team full of young players who are having their first experience of this tournament, and in every photo I see of him coming out of the tunnel, everyone is behind him like they are his bodyguards.
Even on the pitch, it’s like everyone is fighting for Messi and protecting him. I know from playing with him that he feels he has to set the standard and lead by example, but I also know how much he has to enjoy every minute of this World Cup, knowing that he has all the world behind him.
He was always the main player, so it was the same in 2014 when I was in the Argentina team that reached the final, but he was 27 then, not 35.
The difference now is that it’s his last chance – his last dance, if you will – at the end of his career. It makes everything more urgent and you can see it in our performances.
It would be more special if he finally won the World Cup, but there’s also so much pressure on the team because of what failure means this time – quite simply, it means the end of his dream.
Argentina always play on the edge
From the outside I can really see how the Argentine players are doing everything they can for Messi and for the fans.
That incredible drive and determination is a positive thing, but the way this tournament has gone for Argentina means we’ve also been playing on the edge almost since we started.
After the desperation of our first defeat against Saudi Arabia, we had the tension of the first half against Mexico, before the relief when Messi scored to give us the lead. It’s not just our players and fans showing their emotions here – Argentina assistant coach Pablo Aimar broke down in tears when that goal was scored.
It shows you that everyone feels the pressure, but it brought out the best in us when it mattered and we’ve come through all of our tough times so far giving everything to turn things around.
The team showed good spirit and the correct mentality to find what was needed since, including in our quarter-final victory over the Netherlands, when the Dutch scored two very late goals. to force the extension.
I was there and worried because the Dutch had all the momentum not us but we leveled up and had the best chance of winning before the game went to a penalty shootout – then kept our composure to win the shootout.
“An angry Messi is something we like to see”
I know a lot of people said that Argentina were disrespectful with their celebrations in front of the Dutch players after we won that game, and ideally we wouldn’t have been involved in that.
But you also have to understand that this is football – so remember what was at stake and also what was said and done before.
Before the match, there had been a lot of discussions with the Dutch. Even their manager Louis van Gaal had played mind games in his press conference saying that Messi hadn’t touched the ball when we faced them in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals, and that he wasn’t working hard enough on the ball now.
During the game there were a few pushes before the final whistle but when it came to the shootout some of their players would face each Argentinian player walking in to take their penalty and say something to them as they went. as they gave them. the ball.
So it’s both teams doing it and you have to be able to manage it and distribute it. I would say that Argentina handled this situation well – they certainly didn’t lose control.
I also liked Messi’s reaction at the end, with his celebrations and everything he said to Van Gaal when he approached him afterwards.
An angry Messi is something we like to see. It reminded me a bit of Diego Maradona, that kind of character, and that’s not a bad thing when you’re trying to win a World Cup.
“I want this story to end like it did in 1986”
This Argentinian side are playing well again, they are strong and hard to beat – and of course when our number 10 takes the ball he can always shake things up.
Gary Lineker made a very good point on BBC One after we beat the Dutch, saying that when Argentina won the 1986 World Cup the scenario was very similar.
Like Messi is now, Maradona was always the best player on the pitch back then, but he also had a group of good players behind him who were stable and gave their all for the team, and some of them they have intensified at different times.
I hope this story will have the same ending for us, but what Croatia did in Brazil showed how tough Tuesday’s game will be, and we can’t make any more mistakes.
The reason football is so emotional is because it’s so unpredictable, and I don’t think anyone expects it to be a straightforward game. Yes, we can see the final – but we’re not there yet.
Pablo Zabaleta was talking to Chris Bevan in Doha, Qatar