Argentina’s vast support gathered in the thousands at Qatar’s Energy City, adjacent to the sprawling Lusail Stadium, with one man in the lead as they faced the peril of the World Cup.
Lionel Messi carried the hopes of this football-mad nation for most of his career, but there was an added layer of tension as Argentina took on old rivals Mexico in a heartbreaking atmosphere on the stage that will host the final .
Argentina knew defeat would effectively end their World Cup after two games following the embarrassment of defeat to Saudi Arabia in the opener. Messi knew that would mean the great honor that eluded him in a glittering career would be forever out of reach.
Messi has, once again, shouldered the burden of Argentina’s expectations – and once again delivered by pulling off a piece of brand magic when they needed it most to turn the tide of a game attritional, and possibly even changing the course of his team’s world. Cut in progress.
The clock showed 64 minutes. Every second that passed increased the pressure on Argentina and, in turn, on Messi. He knows that any failure of Argentina on this stage, justified or not, can be described as the failure of Messi.
He had been on the sidelines but took center stage to devastating effect as Mexico fell victim to the magical left foot that broke the hearts of so many opponents.
A touch delicately kills Angel di Maria’s pass. The second touch scored a low finish in the bottom corner past the outstretched left arm of Mexican keeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Amid an explosion of noise from the Argentine fans, Messi ran towards them with outstretched arms in that familiar celebratory pose. He looked very moved with relief and release, engulfed by teammates who knew the man they rely on the most had delivered again.
When the crowd of players dispersed, Messi stood in front of the light blue, white-clad supporters, pumping his arms in exultation. He knew what that meant to them. They knew what that meant to him. Mutual ecstasy.
The greatest players deliver when it counts, so it should come as no surprise that Messi is producing again.
It hadn’t been an easy night so far for Messi against Mexico, who was clearly relishing the idea of putting the skates under an Argentina side strongly tipped to win the World Cup at that same Lusail stadium on December 18.
Messi had been marginalized by Mexico. He was unable to exert any influence in a quagmire of stoppages and first-half offenses, the 35-year-old often on foot looking for space where he could escape the narrow Mexican attentions.
It was when a football game finally broke out in the second half that Messi blossomed with the characteristic dart runs, quick passes and, of course, the stroke of genius that broke the deadlock.
Argentina relaxed thanks to Messi, this team’s safety cover, and Enzo Fernandez added a glorious second with a curling right-footed shot after 87 minutes.
It sent their fans into the 88,966 attendances, the highest at the World Cup since the 1994 final in Pasadena, happy at home – at least those who returned home as many remained in a stand for almost an hour after the final whistle paying homage. to their heroes, and one hero in particular.
Messi had brought the Argentine World Cup to life. They still need a win against Poland, with their own national icon in striker Robert Lewandowski, to be certain of going through, but real conviction has emerged thanks to a left-footed shot from Messi.
He knew exactly what was going on in this game.
“We can’t give up now,” Messi said. “We have all the finals to play – we can’t make mistakes. We knew we had to win, another World Cup was starting for us, and we knew how to do it.”
Messi certainly knew how to do it.
He knows this will be his last World Cup, the only elite stage on which he has yet to win the prize. Messi suffered the heartbreak of defeat to Germany in the Rio Maracana in the 2014 final. It was the closest he’s come to getting his hands on the World Cup.
Messi’s career has brought Barcelona four Champions League, seven Ballon d’Or and 10 La Liga titles. His time at Paris St-Germain is still considered a footnote, but even there he won a Ligue 1 crown.
The World Cup is the missing link and this is Messi’s last chance to claim it.
Argentina has not fully convinced, has not yet shown the form that places them in third place in the world, and the prospect of a painful exit still remains against dangerous opponents in Poland.
For now, however, Argentina’s World Cup spectacle is back on the road because where there is Lionel Messi, there is hope.