The joy on his face said it all. At last, at long last – in his fifth tournament, in his 23rd appearance, on the night of his 1,000th career game – Lionel Messi felt like he had really, truly turned up at the World Cup.
Messi had done some great things in the previous 22 matches. He scored some excellent goals, like his opener against Nigeria in 2018 or his daisy-cutter against Mexico last Wednesday. He reached a final and even won the Golden Ball for best player.
And yet his relationship with the World Cup has also been full of disappointment, frustration, grief and pain.
In 2006, the coach didn’t even bring him off the bench as Argentina went out to Germany. In 2010, he went there as the best player in the world and didn’t score. In 2014, the year they reached the final, he was half-fit and by the end exhausted, the Golden Ball he was handed in the aftermath of the final defeat seeming little more than a cruel irony. In 2018, he was part of a mostly shambolic and humiliating Argentina campaign which seemed at the time likely to be his last. And always he was in the shadow of Diego Maradona, who produced his best for Argentina when it mattered most.
Here in Al-Rayyan against Australia he gave his best World Cup performance yet, displaying the full glory of his talents, scoring a brilliant goal, inspiring his team-mates, thrilling the crowd, and leading Argentina into the quarter-finals.
As Messi laid on chance after chance for team-mates in the chaotic closing stages, and the awed cheers of “Messi, Messi, Messi” rolled down the slopes of the Ahmad Bin Ali, there were echoes of Zinedine Zidane’s legendary performance against Brazil in the 2006 quarter-final.
Yes, it was only the second round, it was only Australia, it was only 2-1 (although 6-2 might have been a fairer reflection of the play). There are far bigger tests coming for Argentina, and if they repeat the kind of mistakes they made at either end tonight, they will be made to pay.
But to see Messi play like this – to see him free, confident, fully himself – is to wonder who can stop him.
The goal he scored was the distilled essence of Messi, though the origins of it were anything but. Usually he leaves the pressing to others, but this time, for some reason, he chased a stray ball into the corner with Australia’s left back Aziz Behich.
As the ball ran out for an Argentina throw, Behich angrily grabbed the front of Messi’s shirt, prompting an equally angry response and roars from the overwhelmingly Argentina-supporting crowd. Argentina took the throw and Behich, still fired up, slammed into the back of Papu Gomez to concede a free kick.
Messi’s inswinger was headed away, but the ball quickly came back to him and from there the action unfolded in a way we have seen hundreds of times over his 1,000 games. He played a quick ball to Alexis Mac Allister 30 yards out, darted into the box as Mac Allister returned it, took one touch to control the lay-off from Nicolas Otamendi, and passed it into the bottom Rowles of the goal. From that point on he seemed possessed by the spirit of himself.
He was not directly involved in Argentina’s second, which was all about the ceaseless running and intelligent anticipation of Julian Alvarez, the 22-year old from Manchester City who has transformed Argentina’s attack since forcing his way into the side ahead of Lautaro Martinez.
Writing in El País the morning of the game, the 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano had complained – not for the first time – about what he sees as the “standardisation” of football: the loss of “what used to be called style” as teams from all over the world converge on a common idea of best practice.
“There is a paradox that is difficult to understand,” Valdano wrote, “the teams take more risks in their own area than in the opposite. The reason: more danger is created by pressing the opponent’s build-up than by building the game.”
On 57 minutes, an Argentina move broke down and Australia’s keeper Mathew Ryan took a risk with a quick throw to left back Behich. Unfortunately for Ryan, Rodrigo de Paul had read his intentions and was already pressing Behich. Behich played it back to his centre back Kye Rowles – but De Paul read that pass too and continued his run, bearing down on Rowles.
The centre back then made a mistake, foolishly deciding not to play the ball back to Behich against the direction of De Paul’s run, instead turning and passing it back to his goalkeeper, as De Paul kept up the pursuit.
Ryan at least demonstrated an understanding of the laws of momentum by touching the ball past the onrushing De Paul – but he had not reckoned on a surprise attack from Alvarez, who had sneaked up on the blindside. Alvarez stole the ball and spun beautifully to roll it through the gap between Ryan and Rowles into the empty net. Messi was first on the scene to leap into the young forward’s arms.
The factual record shows that Australia pulled it back to 2-1 via a deflection and almost equalised in injury time – but the truth of the match was it was all about Messi’s inspired performance, conjuring up touch after inspired touch to delight the ecstatic crowd.
Valdano’s lament about the victory of pressing had continued: “This is how we are falling into a bureaucratic football, technically neat and of a high average level, but in which little by little the sense of adventure that characterised different players is disappearing.”
Some might see this kind of talk as pointless. Football is a contest. You can’t opt out of the arms race because you find its demands aesthetically unappealing. The reality is: teams that don’t press lose to teams that do.
But Valdano was riffing on a theme of disenchantment familiar since the Romantics. It’s not just in football where demystification brings disillusionment, a kind of wistful sadness at the vanishing of magic from the world.
For now, at least, we still have Messi, whose genius nobody can explain. But even this talent isn’t enough to win the World Cup by itself. The hard-running, collective-minded tenacity symbolised by Alvarez is also essential.
If Argentina have the most mesmerising attack in the World Cup, it’s because in the combination of Alvarez and the otherworldly Messi, they have brought together the best of the new world and the old, organisation and mystery, modernity and magic.