One moment was all he needed, one nanosecond of time to spot the gap and execute the pass most professional footballers would fail horribly at trying. And was there ever any doubt that Lionel Messi wouldn’t pull it off? This is simply a man who operates in a rarefied zone, a man who can seemingly bend time and space to his will.
The opening half hour of Argentina against the Netherlands was entirely unremarkable. Little of substance had happened until Messi received the ball in the 34th minute inside the Dutch half. In truth, there was little on for Messi at that point, but like he’s done so many times in his career, he engineered something out of nothing.
With banks of defenders in front of him, he revved through the gears, going on that all-too-familiar diagonal run across the line of opposing defenders. Still, nothing seemed possible for Messi, then, without needing to look, he produced the most gorgeous of reverse passes – through bodies – into the path of Nahuel Molina, who did his part to steal a march on Daley Blind and slot the ball into the bottom corner of Andries Noppert’s goal.
It was such a Messi moment, one that could’ve only been produced by him, a footballing brain that’s still more potent that any other player in the world, despite his ageing limbs.
Argentina just about squeezed through on penalties, but the big question is: How much longer can Messi keep dragging this Argentina side through games?
Messi apart, this Argentina iteration is as remarkably ordinary as Messi is great. There are echoes of the 1990 side about this 2022 team; nine decent players surrounded by one very good player (Claudio Caniggia in ’90; Angel Di Maria now) and one contender for the ‘greatest of all time’ label (Diego Maradona in ’90; Messi now).
At Italia ’90, one of the worst Argentina sides of the last 50 years reached the final through the sheer pig-headedness of Maradona, a man battling chronic addiction and ravaged by injuries who somehow bottled it all up to drag them to a second consecutive final. Messi, sans demons and injury but clearly less mobile, is doing the same.
In 1990, Maradona and Argentina’s luck ran out against West Germany, and you get the sense that at this World Cup their luck may run out before getting to the same stage. With two games left for Messi to lift the one trophy that many believe has truly held him back from being crowned the undisputed ‘greatest of all time’, can he deliver more superhuman moments to spur them on?
Messi at this stage of his career walks through games (nobody has walked more at the tournament), opting when and where to pick his moments, sizing up the right situation to make an impact. This is similar to Maradona at Italia ’90, Messi’s run and pass to Molina could resemble Maradona’s moment of genius against Brazil in the round of 16 in ’90, when he skipped past several players and fed Caniggia through a tangle of Brazilian limbs.
Maradona dragged the 1990 side until he could drag them no more; even he couldn’t push past a vastly superior West German outfit with what he had to work with. Messi now has Croatia and a potential final showdown with France on the horizon, and you get the feeling that should Argentina make it into their sixth World Cup final, he might just run out of magic moments, and the comparisons with 1990 will grow even louder.