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Lionel Messi saves the Argentina World Cup


LUSAIL, Qatar — As he hugged Enzo Fernández, Lionel Messi couldn’t help himself. His Argentinian teammates were shouting at them. Behind them, the bleachers melted into a seething, twisting soup of sky blue and white. Messi saw it all and, for the first time in a long time, he smiled.

For someone who has spent the better part of two decades delivering rare, booming moments of fun to millions every week, Messi looks surprisingly rarely happy. It tends, most of the time, towards the serious. He often looks focused, focused, or attentive.

Sometimes he can look pensive, brooding. More regularly than he would have liked, especially in recent years, he has been right to appear disappointed, either in himself or, more generally, in a teammate. And then, of course, there’s the despairing Messi: the drooping-shouldered, hollow-eyed Messi, watching his world crumble around him.

Four days ago it was the Messi who left the pitch at Lusail, his dreams in tatters. Argentina had been beaten by Saudi Arabia, an ignominy that will haunt the country for some time, a disgrace that will be spoken of only in whispers for years to come, and its World Cup – its World Cup – will not hangs by a thread.

This ghost has been alongside Argentina all week. Immediately afterwards, as the inconsolable Argentina players were bussed back to their hotel, Messi demanded that his teammates stick together. He promised fans that they would not be left “stranded” by a team they had placed so much hope in.

He knew, however, that the only way to dispatch ghosts was to confront them. Argentina had no choice but to come back to Lusail, face Mexico and manifest a different outcome. The defeat would end his participation in the World Cup after just two games. Even a tie would leave him on the brink of elimination from a tournament he harbored genuine hopes of winning. Already, there was no margin for error.

It showed. There was nothing compelling, nothing controlled about Argentina’s performance against Mexico. Lionel Scaloni’s side looked nervous from the first minute, snappy in defense and anxious in attack. Rodrigo De Paul, supposedly the commanding central midfielder, endured a five-minute spell during which he made three passes: to Alexis Vega, Hirving Lozano and Daniele Orsato. Two of them were playing for Mexico. The other was the referee.

Even when the breakthrough came, it did little to ease the tension. The goal that broke the deadlock was, of course, scored by Messi; he was always going to be marked by Messi, at least in part because it was overwhelmingly clear at this point that no one else on the pitch – regardless of the color of the shirt he was wearing – was in the slightest able to score.

All Messi needed was all he had ever demanded, the tiniest burst of light, the tiniest hint of space. For the first time of the evening, Mexico left him unguarded near the penalty area. He took one touch to control the ball and another to sweep a weak effort into the only pocket of the goal that Guillermo Ochoa couldn’t quite reach.

Messi therefore did not smile. There was nothing to smile about. Instead, he fled, arms outstretched, screaming into the night. He stopped in front of the delirious shirtless Argentinian fans, all the frustration, embarrassment and stress pouring out of him. He didn’t look happy. He looked determined, intense and just a little wild.

Besides, he knew there was nothing to celebrate. Not yet. It would be somewhat surprising if Messi weren’t now conditioned to believe that the worst will happen in any given situation, to fear that there is always disaster waiting for us. Mexico had 20 minutes left to score, to turn it all around, to leave Argentina dejected and heartbroken once again.

These last few minutes must have felt like an eternity. Mexico were buzzing, threatening Argentina’s penalty area without ever breaking through. Argentina did what they could to waste time, to get some fresh air, to manage tooth and nail to hold on to what they already had.

It wasn’t until Fernández intervened that the storm erupted. It was the kind of goal that would have been distinctly familiar to Messi: the ball at the feet of 21-year-old Fernández in the corner of the penalty area, a defender looming directly in front of him. He moved his hips, just fast enough to unsettle his opponent, to make him lose his balance slightly. He shifted his weight to his left leg and swept a curled shot past Ochoa’s outstretched arm.

It’s the kind of goal Messi has scored countless times – dozens, certainly, probably hundreds – over a career in which he did the extraordinary looking routine. This time, he seemed especially happy not to have had to intervene again. He was the first to reach Fernández, carrying him into a bear hug, lifting him off the ground.

He did it with a broad smile. Messi, finally, was happy and he was determined to take advantage of it. Shortly after the final whistle, he led his teammates towards thousands and thousands of Argentinian supporters, those who had taken this vast gold-lined stadium, a literalist monument to the luxury and indulgence of this Cup of world, and somehow transformed a pocket of it into the Bombonera or the Monumental or the ruined Nuevo Gasodrome.

For a few minutes, Messi stood there, his arms flapping in rhythm, his voice joining them in song. Above his head, in the upper floor of the Lusail, a vast flag had appeared, two sky-blue stripes sandwiching a white stripe. It spanned half the length of the stand, but had somehow remained hidden until then. Now he was deployed. Messi was smiling, for the first time in a long time, and Argentina were ready to show their true colors.

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