Lionel Messi was hailed as Argentina’s next World Cup messiah the minute he made his first dashing dribble in a professional career that has included tens of thousands of them.
Diego Maradona single-handedly led Argentina to the 1986 World Cup, and his logical heir in the sky blue and white stripes is expected, fairly or not, to do the same. If the South Americans go on to win the tournament after a 36-year drought, Messi’s goal against Mexico in the 64th minute will be cited as a pivotal moment. He has now scored eight World Cup goals, matching El Diego’s total.
Do not fret if you have missed the target; you have seen it countless times before. Messi received a square pass on the edge of the penalty area and, after taking one touch to position himself, fired a shot into the bottom corner. Not even Guillermo Ochoa, Mr. World Cup, could stop it. It was classic Messi and the first instance of delicacy in a contest that had been characterized by complete anarchy.
He added an assist for good measure, but it was not the sort of Messi pass that will appear on any YouTube compilations of techno-sounding music. He sent a straightforward pass to substitute Enzo Fernandez, who curled a magnificent shot into the top of the net to increase Argentina’s lead and put Mexico out of the game. The moment the final whistle blew, Messi was surrounded by his thankful teammates. He was, not for the first time, the deciding factor.
Group C is still wide open, meaning Argentina’s job is incomplete. Poland’s 2-0 victory over Saudi Arabia places them in first place with four points, followed by Argentina and Saudi Arabia with three and Mexico with one. A tie, however, would have been disastrous and resulted in elimination. Messi and company needed a victory to keep their World Cup hopes alive, and as unconvincing as it was, they were able to secure one before their last encounter against Poland.
The situation would have been less stressful if they had not lost their first game. As Argentina’s desperation against Saudi Arabia grew, so did their enthusiasm; a lack of zeal was unacceptable against a Mexico team that was equally determined to make its mark on this competition. Even while a tie was not ideal for either team, it was significantly less disastrous for the Mexicans.
It had the look and feel of a World Cup match that could have been played in any era, from the traditional shirts to the frenetic pace on the field to the commotion in the stands. However, although desire was abundant, class was few. It was a momentous occasion for Argentina, but they appeared jittery and unprepared to avoid Mexico’s relentless, though disorganized, push. At the break, the ratio of tackles to shots was about five to one.
Not until the 45th minute did either goalkeeper have to make a save, with Emi Martinez diving to his right to grab a free-kick from Mexico’s tenacious midfielder Alexis Vega that, for an instant, appeared to be curling into the top corner. In the fifth minute of stoppage time, Argentina’s most promising opportunity was from a low cross that was diverted for a corner kick. At the break, everyone was wondering, “What does Rodrigo De Paul truly do?”
Roy Keane, displeased, remarked, “It’s like watching a championship match.” There was a severe lack of quality. He was not in error.
The second half did not significantly better, although there were at least two occasions of excellence that were pivotal. This was at least a start in the right direction for Argentina, who have yet to reach their full potential despite a 36-game undefeated streak that featured a stunning thrashing of Italy in the Finalissima at Wembley and which naturally heightened expectations.
Messi’s four goals and five assists helped Argentina win the Copa America for the first time in 28 years, destroying the veracity of the criticism that he abandons his nation. The clock is ticking for Messi to add a World Cup winner’s medal to his collection, but the dream is still alive.