So, it all comes down to this, Lionel. A semi-final against Croatia, a nation of four million people who simply refuse to be beaten in the same way they refuse to allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to swim. That’s a coastline joke. The best kind.
That thrilling M. Night Shyamalan twist against the Netherlands was probably wholly unnecessary from an Argentinian standpoint, allowing the Dutch to trebuchet their way back into an encounter they had to that point played very little part in, but that is the beauty of football.
Emiliano ‘Dibu’ Martinez took the spotlight in the end, saving two penalties, and it was Lautaro Martinez who stepped up to take the decisive fifth for Argentina. The other players, after appropriately sticking their tongues out and pulling silly faces at their counterparts in orange, rushed over for a congratulatory pile-on atop the Inter forward.
Messi, who had gone first (coughing in the general direction of Brazil, here) strolled the opposite way, over to his goalkeeper, who was lying face down on the grass in relief, or perhaps emotional exhaustion.
They had a quiet moment together; that bit in the action movie where the protagonists take a second to acknowledge just how close the earth was to complete and total destruction, of how ridiculous it was that they did manage to escape that horde of zombies, or aliens, or vampires, in that fashion, through the eye of the needle and by the skin of their teeth.
Messi might even have taken the opportunity simply to say thank you, in typically melodramatic fashion. “You know, Emi, I couldn’t do this without you.” Cue a warm embrace and a tear or two from the more emotionally predisposed in the cinema.
This World Cup is a blockbuster, Messi its top-billing lead and the happy-ever-after still there, waiting on the horizon.
The scriptwriters are playing it by the book. That defeat to Saudi Arabia was the perfect knockdown. The games against Mexico and Poland a chance to pick themselves up and dust their shoulders off. To show us all Messi is capable of. The magic he still possesses.
That was our initial conflict and motivation. The start of the long journey to redemption and a heroic kind of catharsis. Australia were only more practice to build up strength, despite a couple of late scares.
And then came the giant, the cave troll, Wout Weghorst from his slumber, the unlikeliest threat to life on earth as we know it. Messi and his sidekick, in this case, an Aston Villa goalkeeper, somehow steered the asteroid away at the last moment. Crisis averted, for now.
Up next comes the bitter struggle redux, Croatia in a knockout game. We know how this goes. You think they’re out, finished, defeated. Finally. And then, with the gun to their head, suddenly they’re not. Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic and that immortal sorcerer Luka Modric all decide they’re not quite done yet. That they have one final trick up their sleeve.
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Remember that Croatia’s route to the final in 2018 consisted of two penalty shootout wins and that extra-time win against [REDACTED]. Check.
In Qatar, they have already dismissed both Japan and Brazil through their superiority from 12 yards, the evil genius of Dominik Livakovic guessing where you are going to shoot before you’ve even decided yourself. Check.
There are no more perfect villains for Messi – apparently our hero, Modric might have something to say about that – to conquer next. The team who do this for fun. Without the energy-sapping weight of expectation on their shoulders.
It’s all, as Clive Tyldesley would say, set up rather nicely.
Lazy screenwriting would have us believe that this is how it pans out from here. Croatia take the lead against Argentina. All seems lost. Messi gets changed in a phonebox and leads a daring comeback. Triumph.
What’s that in the gathering storm clouds overhead? France have squeaked past Morocco, too. A rematch of that famous 4-3 in Kazan four years ago awaits, this time with the trophy on the line. Far more than that for Messi. But it’s against the reigning champions. The GOAT-in-waiting.
Let’s face it, there is no nation as cartoonishly evil as the French. Didier Deschamps has the look of a man with an underground lair, of that I am convinced.
Thank god then that football is no ham-fisted screenplay, that there is no intricate destiny at work here beneath the fabric of reality.
Argentina are not, it would seem, a particularly extraordinary team. Their faults are obvious and glaring, laid bare against the Netherlands. They are chaotic, overly emotional and dysfunctional. They will give you needless late free-kicks in dangerous positions because it is written in their DNA. They maybe want this all a bit too much.
They have Nicolas Otamendi. A man with both a bear and a lion tattooed across his chest. Tommy Shelby and Walter White across his back.
Argentina are not as savvy as the Croats, cool-headed like the French or as resolute as the Moroccans. Every obstacle has been ridiculously hard work to this point, even with the greatest player of all time in their midst. But they have, to their credit, just about scraped through.
They are two games away from cementing Messi’s legacy as the best to ever do it. Or is it two games away from winning the World Cup? At this point, it’s hard to separate the two. To know what the team, or the superstar, are really playing for.
We’ll find out soon enough. They say you can’t write sport. To script things like this. Maybe Lionel Messi can. He only needs to find the right Hollywood ending. Who knows, we might not even roll our eyes this time.