The penalty wasn’t enough. Today’s fan demands more. Scoring a mere penalty to lead your team to the World Cup final – that’s how you get called Pessi.
So in the 69th minute here at Lusail, Lionel Messi threw in another special something to remember him by.
When Messi played his first World Cup in 2006, Josko Gvardiol was only four years old. Now 20, he is reckoned by many to be the best young defender at the Qatar World Cup.
The 2006 version of Messi might have beaten Gvardiol (2022 edition) at the first attempt. At 35, Messi needed to beat him three times to get past him.
The first, a little flick over Gvardiol’s outstretched leg, took him past the Croatia centre back and down the right wing. By the time he approached the corner of the box, Gvardiol had caught up with him.
[ World Cup semi-final as it happened ]
The next little drop of the shoulder and burst took Messi another six or seven yards towards the touchline, but Gvardiol again kept up. The defender had done well, killing the speed of the break, buying time for his team-mates to get back, and boxing Messi into a position, his back to goal, where he couldn’t do much damage.
At least that is what everyone thought in the instant before Messi faked to go right, then darted left and ran around Gvardiol on the outside. Now the defender was unable to make the tackle for fear of giving away a penalty, but he still managed to stretch his leg out in a desperate block, only to get nutmegged by the cross, and Julián Álvarez, closing in, buried it.
The Argentina fans at that end of the Lusail had probably thought they’d never see Messi burning an opponent on the outside like that ever again. He really is playing all the hits on this farewell tour. It was reminiscent of the sudden explosion of acceleration before he scored his goal against Australia in the second round, pushing past an Australian defender to reach what he knew was the scoring position.
In these moments Messi shows how speed isn’t just a question of having a sprinter’s physique. There’s an element of pure will involved. Physically he has always looked so average. There’s no comparison between him and players like Kylian Mbappé or Cristiano Ronaldo. But somehow he can still make his ordinary-looking, 35-year-old legs do these incredible things, as though his mind has a more complete command over his body than other players, as though the messages to his muscles are travelling through more and faster connections.
Once again Messi was named Fifa’s player of the match – a touch harsh on Álvarez, who scored two goals, won the penalty Messi scored and was undoubtedly the decisive player in the game. His first goal, galloping from halfway and scoring after controlling two failed Croatian clearances in succession, was ablaze with the same tenacity and desire Messi showed in his run past Gvardiol.
Speed was the difference, ultimately, between Argentina and Croatia. What the Croats could have done here with a little of Argentina’s speed in attack.
At their best in Qatar, they compensated for lack of speed with rage. The biggest rookie error made by any coach in this World Cup was when Canada’s John Herdman remarked after his team’s unlucky defeat to Belgium that they were now going to go out and “F**k Croatia.”
It felt unwise at the time for Herdman to say something that could be taken as an affront to Croatian machismo and it was no surprise that that was exactly how the Croats decided to take it. A Croatian newspaper’s mock-up of Herdman naked but for a small maple leaf went viral. “Croatia showed who f**ked who” the centre forward Andrej Kramarić told the media after scoring twice in his team’s 4-1 win.
But that Canadian goal rush represented an uncharacteristic surge of potency from the Croats here in Qatar. They had scored just two goals in their other four matches, two of which went all the way to penalties.
They have shown an incredible ability to match the level of their opponents, but Canada were the only team they were able to destroy. They beat you by staying with you all the way to the end, then keeping their nerve on penalties. When they got to the final in 2018 they still had Mario Mandzukic, a wild horse of a centre forward who poured the last energy of his career into that campaign. Kramarić, the destroyer of Canada, was a poor replacement.
That was the plan again at Lusail. Croatia started confidently, with two-thirds of the ball during the first half an hour, as their midfield triangle of Luca Modrić, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović put on a clinic in small-space ball-retention. And yet all those little meandering passes around the middle, keeping the ball but with no apparent destination in mind, began to recall Jorge Valdano’s withering description of Spain’s pass-pass-pass-but-don’t-score playing style: “masturbation without orgasm.” Argentina’s two goals, scored via direct surges straight through the middle, almost seemed to mock this directionless complexity.
Croatia knew as well as everyone else that at two goals down, their World Cup was over. For Messi and Argentina, the dream is beginning to feel like destiny.