When the referee blew the halftime whistle at the Lusail Stadium on Saturday, even the most optimistic of Argentina fans would have been fearing the worst. For 45 minutes, they had huffed and puffed against the brick wall that an energetic Mexico side put up in front of the goal. Their reward was frustration.
It was not that hard to tell that Argentina’s players were not in the best frame of mind. They had arrived at the World Cup as one of the better Argentina sides in recent memory. Even with Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria past their prime, this was a side that had significantly upgraded in other areas of the pitch.
They had won the Copa America last year, ending a trophy drought that had extended across three decades, before breezing through qualifying. There was a tinge of destiny about them — a team capable of challenging for the Cup in Messi’s last World Cup.
However, their opener against Saudi Arabia had shrouded these rays of optimism with dark clouds that seemed to have blown over directly from Russia in 2018.
The team looked short of confidence, listless in attack despite the talent that was obviously there, and shaky in defence despite individual defenders all excelling for their clubs this season.
It was more of the same in that first half against Mexico. The Mexicans ganged up on midfielders Rodrigo de Paul and Guido Rodriguez in midfield, often cutting off attacks in the bud. Di Maria showed a few sparks but Lautaro Martinez squandered whatever chances he got.
There was a meme that circulated in social media at halftime, of Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa leaning against his goalposts and drinking a cup of coffee. It wasn’t far from the truth.
It was at this point that Argentina’s fans would have feared the worst. A draw looked like the likely outcome here, but given Argentina’s luck in Qatar, what was stopping Hirving Lozano from stealing one at the end? Could Messi’s last World Cup really last just five days?
Then Messi decided that enough was enough. For sixty minutes, he had looked shorn of his superpowers, like Superman with a chunk of Kryptonite taped to his back. Mexico might have been forgiven for thinking they had him beat. But the thing is, every generic superhero movie script features the hero rediscovering who he really is towards the end. This one too was not so nuanced.
After an hour of being ordinary, Messi received the ball outside the penalty box, a few metres to the left from where he had sent a freekick harmlessly over the bar ten minutes ago. Three Mexicans converged on him, no doubt expecting the man to make another futile attempt to burst into the box only to clatter into a green wall yet again.
But instead, Messi swung that famous left foot of his and found that narrow path that took the ball in between their outstretched legs and past a diving Ochoa. The ball grazed the post ever so slightly before disturbing the net — the precision was that of an Olympic shooter hitting a tiny black dot from many metres away.
After sharing the euphoria with his teammates, Messi shed tears in front of the fans, no doubt tears of relief at the reaffirmation that he was indeed superman. Argentina had finally arrived in Qatar. Enzo Fernandes then added another one towards the end, a beauty in its own right, but there was no doubt as to which goal was replaying in the fans’ heads as they left the stadium.
Even Fernades wouldn’t complain. When you get to see Lionel Andres Messi at his best, it tends to outshine everything else.