LUSAIL, Qatar — The darkest moments of Lionel Messi’s Argentine career began with a solitary walk. He broke away from a shoulder-to-shoulder line of tense teammates and slipped into the spotlight. It was the final chapter of a frenetic night, Argentina’s first penalty shootout attempt after a 120-minute beating. And with each agonizingly slow step, from midfield to the penalty spot, the pressure gripped Messi’s magical limbs.
It was June 26, 2016, six years before he found himself in a similar spotlight here at the world Cup. And that night in New Jersey, with a lesser trophy at hand, he stared at the goal with a painful squint. Seconds later he sent a ball over a crossbar. He grabbed his jersey with both hands and tugged furiously. He winced as he retraced his steps towards midfield and covered his face in horror.
Messi was “broken”, his good friend Sergio Aguero said later, after Argentina lost the Copa America final. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” Aguero said. Messi used a dugout and supporting teammates to keep his distraught body upright. After the clocks struck midnight, he leave the national team. “I’ve tried so hard to be [a] champion with Argentina, but it didn’t happen, I couldn’t do it. he said. The mission, and its crushing weight, was simply “not for me”.
It was all the context for his last solitary walk, from midfield to another penalty spot, into another scorching spotlight, for another first attempt after another 120-minute beating here on another frenetic night, this once in a world cup quarter final.
This time, when the pressure hit him early on Saturday, Messi shrugged it off.
Because this time, during his last World Cup, Messi is changed.
He fixed his eyes on the ball and, with the calm of a shy child in Rosario Park surrounded by siblings and cousins, he tricked a Dutch goalkeeper and propelled Argentina into the penalty spot lead. aim. More than three unforgettable hours at the Lusail stadium, a ruthless sense of the game and 17 yellow cards and an unrelenting noise, he led Argentina to the semi-finals brilliantly unlocked, via limbs no longer possessed by pressure, because , like Argentinian legend Jorge Valdano said recently: “He is free.”
For years, when Argentina’s games turned into barbaric madhouses, they often devoured Messi and his magic. But here and now, feeling “more experienced and more mature,” he not only participated in Friday’s mayhem; he rose above. He scored a goal and celebrated it with outstretched arms, then waltzed over to the Netherlands bench and planted himself there, for a few iconic seconds, palms wide open next to his ears.
“I felt despised by [Netherlands coach Louis] Van Gaal after his pre-match comments,” Messi said after the game. “And some Dutch players talked too much during the game.”
He answered with his mouth, but also with his glittering toes. He dropped either shoulder to shake up the defenders. Amid furious movement and constant din, he remained calm. He walked, quietly, in search of space, as he does more often than anyone else in modern football, turning a trait usually associated with laziness into a superpower.
He stood almost still for moments in the 34th minute, surveying and analyzing the chaos around him, before sensing space, receiving the ball and stepping onto another planet. He walked away from two Dutchmen but saw six others getting in his way, so he soared into the sky for a bird’s eye viewand chose an alien pass only findable by satellite.
His touches in the first half and the weight of his passes were almost perfect. His second-half penalty, converted after goalkeeper Andries Noppert blatantly tried and failed to confuse him, was accurate.
Messi played the whole game like he was comfortable – that’s how he felt this month and the last. He has found peace of mind and perspective. He learned to think, to “give more importance to the small details”, as he said; to savor moments on the biggest stage in sport rather than shy away from it. And with a Copa America title finally behindsince last summer, he feels “more relaxed” and “calmer, which allows us to work differently, without anxiety”, he said.
Thus the pressure, always present, is no longer a brake. Messi came out of it a different man – and, by extension, a different player, an incomparable player only like Barcelona in the mid-20s.
In the past, s***housery – a football term for devious and ugly foul play – made him a sideshow cut short. Friday, and until the wee hours of Saturday morning, he was the protagonist of the accommodation. Amid the chaos following the conclusion of the shootout, after other Argentine players rubbed defeat in the faces of broken opponents, Messi sought out Dutch coaches and raised his right hand, chewing on all four fingers and his thumb together in a conversational motion, taunting them.
Shortly after this confrontation, during a television interview, he saw the Dutch striker Wout Weghorst pass. “What are you watching, sore?” he snapped, using a Spanish word for “fool”.
Messi celebrated loudly, his basic mood cheerful rather than relieved. He addressed the journalists with courtesy and lucidity, as he did throughout the tournament. He is now one step away from a semi-final against Croatia (Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo), who submerged him four years ago in Russiaand who will probably tackle, crunch and hack him like the Dutch did on Friday.
And maybe the Croats will talk too. If so, so much the better.
“I think Leo felt a bit attacked,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said after Friday’s game. “And [he] has proven to be the best of all time.