Look, the 2022 World Cup will always be Lionel Messi’s tournament.
He’s Argentina’s leader, their best player and the man who has carried the pressure of a nation on his back for nearly his entire career. There is no questioning the fact that he deserves both the moment and the headlines.
Spare a thought, however, for Angel Di Maria who, for large parts of the game, was actually Argentina’s best player.
The 34-year-old winger hasn’t done a whole lot in the 2022/23 season. Since joining Juventus on a free transfer from PSG, he’s played ten times, dealt with three injuries and served a two-match ban for a straight red card. At club level, his last goal was his Serie A debut on August 22.
There were doubts over his availability for the World Cup in the first place, and it’s clear that Di Maria wasn’t fully fit when he arrived in Qatar. He completed 90 minutes just once and didn’t even make it off the bench in the round of 16 or the semi-final. In the quarter-final against the Netherlands, he played just eight minutes.
And yet, with the pressure up to the maximum, Di Maria produced one of his all-time great performances in the World Cup final.
Di Maria won Argentina’s penalty, terrorising Ousmane Dembele into producing a disasterous display which was mercifully ended before half-time. Up stepped Messi, who slotted home from the spot.
El Fideo’s attacking runs were perfection and matched only by the playmaking greatness of Messi. The pair were on the same wavelength with the solitary goal of dragging their country to long-awaited glory. Having played together since 2008, that should come as no surprise. Each knows the other’s movements and how to maximise them.
As his influence grew, Di Maria commanded the ball and often stood out more than anyone else on the pitch, including as he tapped home Argentina’s second goal after an outstanding team move.
The floodgates literally opened for Di Maria, whose emotions became too much for him as he began to process what he was actually doing at that moment. As he has done so often in his career, the veteran was turning up when it mattered most and dragging his country to the brink of history.
Unfortunately for Di Maria, he didn’t get to finish the job on the pitch. He was substituted shortly after the hour mark – surely something to do with his fitness – and Argentina began to crumble. With Marcos Acuna on in his place, La Albiceleste went into defensive mode. They didn’t have the Di Maria outlet anymore, and a double from Kylian Mbappe almost made them pay.
Had they not had the genius that is Messi, Argentina could have feasibly lost this game, and that all stemmed from Di Maria’s slow trudge off the pitch.
Messi would go on to be named Man of the Match, later picking up the Golden Ball and, eventually, the World Cup trophy itself, and the 35-year-old deserved every second of adulation that came his way. He was fantastic. But so was Di Maria.
Di Maria has always been happy to play the sidekick role in his career, especially at international level. When you’re playing alongside the greatest of all time, you sort of have to accept that title if you’re going to make it work.
Without any complaints, Di Maria joined in the praise that came Messi’s way, thrusting his long-time friend into the spotlight and ensuring the focus will forever be on the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.
Quietly, however, Di Maria etched his name in Argentinian folklore. Messi may have realised his ultimate dream, but he did it with plenty of help from El Fideo.