LUSAIL, Qatar — His arms aloft, Lionel Messi stood before those that had come to adore him. In that second, he had the massed ranks of Argentina’s fans contained in the Lusail Stadium under his spell. They didn’t bounce and writhe in celebration. As an alternative, he held them perfectly still, caught in a moment of quiet communion between the divine and his congregation.
Then, after all, it broke. The stands above looked as if it would melt and to shake, a roar of joy and relief and affirmation reverberating around this vast, golden bowl. On the sector, Messi was flooded by his jubilant teammates. He had not scored the goal — that relatively walk in the park had fallen to Julián Álvarez — but he had created it, willed it into being, fashioned it from whole silk. And now, eventually, he had done what he had got down to do.
For years, Argentina has hoped. For weeks, Argentina has believed. Only in that moment, though, with a 3-0 lead over Croatia with just 10 minutes of the semifinal remaining, did Argentina know. On Sunday, Lionel Messi will lead out his country within the World Cup final. Eight years on, the player who is likely to be the most effective of all time will again grace the largest game on the earth. He could have one last shot at redemption. He could have his probability at revenge.
It has grow to be a well-known trope that this World Cup — his last — is Messi’s final opportunity to make up for the frustration of defeat by Germany in 2014, to cement his legacy, to match the achievements of his only possible historical peers, Pelé and Diego Maradona, and deliver his nation the best glory the sport can offer. That framing is appealing, however it is incorrect.
Credit…Petr David Josek/Associated Press
Messi’s legacy is already secure. His list of honors borders on the absurd, an limitless parade of trophies lifted and records smashed: 4 Champions League titles, 790 goals, 11 domestic championships, a Copa Ámerica, Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer, five Ballons d’Or (or equivalent), probably the most prolific player in Spanish history.
Messi is just not here because he needs a World Cup to be remembered as an ideal. He’s here since it is the one thing that might mean more — to him, to his congregation, to his homeland — than every other. He’s here because he sees it as somewhere between his duty and his destiny. He’s here because it might be his crowning glory.
There was an intensity to Messi, these previous couple of weeks, that has not at all times been apparent within the latter stages of his profession. He still spends much of his time on the sector strolling around, after all, rousing himself into a delicate jog only when he deems the situation worthy of his attention, but that economy of energy mustn’t be confused with disinterest or dissatisfaction.
It was Messi, in any case, who stood up on Argentina’s team bus after defeat to Saudi Arabia and asked his dejected teammates in the event that they could trust one another. It was Messi who confronted your entire Netherlands coaching staff after Argentina had emerged victorious from an irascible, volatile quarterfinal. It was Messi who took fiery exception to the presence of Wout Weghorst, the Dutch striker, in a post-match interview.
And it has, repeatedly, been Messi who has intervened in games to bend them to his will. Since that loss to the Saudis, he said, Argentina has “faced five finals, and been fortunate to win all five.”
Fortunate is one word for it. Within the group stage, it was Messi who broke the deadlock against Mexico, just as Argentina’s nerves were shredding, because the specter of humiliation hung heavy over the nation. It was Messi who opened the scoring against Australia within the round of 16. It was Messi who made the primary goal and scored the second against the Dutch, after which it was Messi who stepped up and took the primary penalty within the shootout.
Against Croatia, too, it was Messi who proved the decisive figure. The cruelty of knockout soccer is that an entire month’s value of labor — more, in truth — can evaporate in a single quick. Croatia’s defining trait, throughout the tournament, has been its control, its composure.
It could not have been probably the most adventurous, probably the most thrill-seeking team in Qatar, however it has been disciplined, organized, resolute. It has worn down opponents, held them at bay, trusted that they’d make the primary mistake. It had done it well enough not only to make it to the semifinal, beating Brazil along the way in which, but to survive the primary half hour of Tuesday’s game with barely a scratch.
Luka Modric, that other generational talent attempting to stave off the ultimate curtain, had established his authority over the midfield. His redoubtable cadre of lieutenants — Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic — were hurriedly and dutifully putting out what few fires threatened to ignite. Argentina was beginning to get that very same sinking feeling that loads of teams face when confronted by Croatia.
But all it takes is a moment. For the primary time — on this game, on this tournament, possibly in his life — Modric took his eye off the ball. Reasonably than coming under his command, it rolled under his feet, squirming out to Enzo Fernández. Regardless of; Fernández was still deep in his own half. There was no immediately apparent danger.
Modric is so reliable, though, that it had not occurred to anyone that he might err. Josko Gvardiol and Dejan Lovren, Croatia’s central defenders, had drifted apart, attempting to supply him a good angle for a pass.
Suddenly, there was a spot. Álvarez, alert, spotted it. So, too, did Fernández. He clipped a straight, easy ball down the sector, and suddenly Álvarez was racing after it, gobbling up the clear, green grass in front of him. Dominik Livakovic, the Croatia goalkeeper, rushed out to fulfill him, but succeeded only in clattering into his midriff. Argentina had a penalty. Messi had the ball. All of Croatia’s good work had been for nothing.
Five minutes later, the sport was effectively over, Álvarez scoring the worst, best goal possible, barging down the sector from the halfway line, the ball ricocheting back into his path after two attempted Croatian challenges, sitting up perfectly to be prodded past Livakovic.
Messi delivering the pass that led to Julian Álvarez’s second goal.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
This being Argentina, though, even a two-goal lead didn’t provide absolute certainty. Lionel Scaloni’s team had one in every of those against the Dutch, and had thrown it away. It was only when the third goal emerged, conjured into being by Messi, that Argentina could exhale. It was fitting, too, a vintage slice of Messicana, a maestro playing the hits, using this stage to grow to be his own tribute act.
With 10 minutes to play of a World Cup semifinal, on the age of 35, there he was, scurrying down the wing, wriggling away from Gvardiol, his unstinting shadow all night, slowing down so he could beat him again, making it into the penalty area, slipping the ball back for Álvarez, turning to his fans, to his people, and accepting not a lot their congratulations as their thanks.
That was when Argentina knew. In those previous couple of minutes, as Argentina ticked down the clock and the songs echoed across the Lusail, Argentina’s substitutes stood on the sideline, that purgatorial zone between the stands and the sector, with their arms slung around one another’s shoulders, joining in with the chorus.
On the tops of their voices, they sang the anthems which have sound-tracked Argentina’s month in Qatar, its journey to the ultimate, those which are dedicated to the country, to Maradona and, above all, to Messi, the person they’ve all come — fans and players alike — to honor, and to adore.