Lionel Messi transcends sport once again as Argentine star shines

Argentina lives in the World Cup and Lionel Messi too: a tournament breathes again. A 2-0 victory over Mexico on Saturday night at a vibrant Lusail Stadium, sparked by another gem of a goal from the Argentina captain, was a welcome gift from the soccer gods for Qatar ’22.

In a World Cup already stripped of too many stars for its comfort, the brightest of all shines in what, at 35, will be the last. If the Mexicans had pulled off the same trick as Saudi Arabia, Argentina would have gone down and Messi with them.

As it stands, if they can beat Poland on Wednesday, the two-time champions will advance to the round of 16. “We knew it was a critical match because if we didn’t win we were out,” Messi said.

“We have lived with discomfort these last days after the defeat in the opening game, something we did not expect. The days felt very long and we were looking forward to another chance to turn things around.

“We knew that if we won we would have another chance and luckily we won. That was a weight on our shoulders and also a reason for joy as we have the peace of mind that we have confidence in ourselves against Poland. It’s up to us again.”

Scenes of eased celebration lasted well into the early morning. The Doha metro at 2am was still resounding with the sound of Argentina’s drums as jubilant fans, many in Messi 10 jerseys, continued to party.

Not all were Argentines. The workers on the Indian subcontinent who keep Qatar moving don’t have a team of their own at this World Cup, so they have opted to adopt another. Some have gone to England, others to Brazil, but many have chosen Argentina in large part because of one man: Messi.

That’s what star power does.

Without Erling Haaland and Mo Salah to start and Norway and Egypt failing to qualify, the tournament then lost Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and Sadio Mane before a ball was kicked. The best of the best moniker was starting to wear a bit thin.

When Neymar’s ankle injury deprived Brazil of his services for the rest of the group stage matches, another of the tournament’s leading figures disappeared.

Where Messi is, although there is always majesty and the little master still has it. The touch and death blow to break the tie against Mexico was classic Messi, a deadly package of skill, vision and execution.

It was his eighth goal in the World Cup final and the 93rd for his country. The euphoria at the time was not similar to that of Messi. He seemed on the verge of tears as he looked at the wall of Argentine fans going crazy in front of him. It became very clear how much this fifth and final World Cup means.

When Messi emerged nearly two hours after the final whistle, around 1:30am Qatar time, the excitement had worn off but the visible relief remained.

He was smiling again.

“The goal changed the game,” he said. “The first half was difficult, we couldn’t find space, we weren’t moving the ball, which was normal given what was at stake. But after the goal, when we calmed down, we went back to being who we are.”

Disaster averted, what is Messi’s message to the growing Argentine diaspora?

“I tell people the same thing: keep believing. Today begins another World Cup for Argentina”.

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