The most magnificent part of Lionel Messi’s goal against Nigeria was its minimalism — cushioning the balls with his left thigh, lulling it onto his left knee, the dexterous shift of feet and the smooth curl of the ball into the nets. All this in one synchronised pirouetting of his limbs, a blend of Cruyffian imagination and Bergkamp-esque magnestism, trimmed of theatrical flourishes.
Long after the match drifts into the sub-conscious, the strike shall inhabit the consciousness of not just Messi devout, but whoever that cares to appreciate the beauty of the game. He scored no more goals in the game, neither a moment of magic or an assist, yet it would be a travesty of justice to squeeze Messi into just one blazing frame of ingenuity. For it was a wild night when Messi was more than just Messi.
There Messi was, sliding into tackles, muscling through the markers, striding behind lost balls like a maniac, pushing and shoving his adversaries, animatedly engaging the refs, finger-wagging, shouting, rebuking and pleading at his teammates. In the first half alone, he had more touches than he had against Croatia in the whole of the match (49), he scored the first goal of the tournament, nearly added one more, but for the post. Significantly he single-handedly lifted the team’s morale, after it had plunged to the cellar against Croatia. From BBC analysts’ room, his former teammate Javier Zabaleta screamed: “Today, there’s something contagious about him. He has been truly inspirational.” They were still error-prone, even foppish at times, but they seemed for the first time in the tournament, purposeful and buoyant, trying to make things happen themselves, rather than looking Messi-wards each time they got the ball, the recurrent theme of their previous games.
Messi seemed to be playing as if this was his last game for the country. He gave it all — his last ounce of energy and skill, his last drop of sweat and blood. It was so un-Messi of sights, yet it would turn to be the most memorable of his nights, as he confessed after the match. “I don’t remember having ever suffered so much, because of the situation and because of what was at stake. It was a huge release for all of us,” he said. It was also the night Messi lived up to the grand Argentinean concept of pibe — literally means an urchin kid, but in the parlance of the game, a hyper-talented footballer brought up in the streets blessed with equals amount of skills and street-smartness, symbolised by Diego Maradona, who they called El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy). Messi, with his game largely shaped at the La Masia academy, and his upbringing rather privileged, wasn’t ever one. The pibe of his times was Carlos Tevez.
In his definitive book on Argentinean football, Angels With Dirty Faces, Jonathan Wilson narrates a story about a lady flag-seller, at the Santa Fe Stadium, the closest venue to Messi’s hometown Rosario. When asked to compare them, before a Copa America match, she opined: “Play Messi against weaker teams, but against stronger teams Tevez is the boy. He has that fight and resilience. He’s the Pibe.” But as it turned out, Tevez spilled a penalty in the tiebreaker and Argentina crashed out in the quarterfinals. Messi’s perceived aloofness in the match was widely criticised. It was Javier Mascherano who addressed the huddle, after the match, Messi slunk into the dressing room, alone and in tears, shut himself from the rest of the teammates for the rest of the nights. The newspapers accused him of not caring for Argentina as much as he does Barcelona, though Messi, wherever he went, remained devoted to his roots. He married his childhood sweetheart, who was from Rosario, his Spanish still has a strong Argentinean accent, and his favourite food is his mother’s Milanesa Napolitana. And whenever he gets time, he’s hooked into the movies of Ricardo Garin, the Argentinean actor and direcor.
A leader of men
In the right-wing circles in Argentina, Messi was cast as an archetypal Menotista hero, a drifting, self-centered idealist, the legendary manager Cesar Luis Menoti adored. But in St Petersburg on Tuesday night, he fitted into the notions of a Bilardista hero, a grisly leader of men who would stretch to any extent to see his side over the line, the types Menoti’s great adversary Carlos Bilardo admired.
The smouldering angst on his face when Gonzalo Higuain lifted a straightforward chance miles over the keeper would have burned him — had Marcos Rojo not scored the winner Messi would have lived with the grouse that no teammate of his has let him down so heartlessly as Higuain. He fluffed a gilt-edged opportunity in the World Cup final against Germany in 2014, then a year later in the Copa America finals against Chile and now against Nigeria that could have potentially ended Messi’s Argentina career on a tragic note.
It could yet end in tears for Messi, given the overwhelming mediocrity of his teammates, who no doubt demonstrated the will to fight, but are a desperately deficient, if not dysfunctional in certain parts of the field, to mount a sustained title challenge. The second half was as disjointed as they had been in the tournament, losing possession, heavy touches, crude tackles and the moment of absurdity that eventually resulted in the penalty—when three Argentina players, hardly a foot separating them, leapt at the same time to keep off a ball.
But Messi, the boy who always kept a Bible in his bag and who walked 50 miles barefoot with his father and uncle to give thanks to the shrine of the Virgin of the St Nicholas after he was admitted at the La Masia Academy, has reaffirmed his faith in God. “I knew God was with us. It’s destiny,” he said after the match. But for that he needs more re-stoking of the pibe spirit. Or maybe, that of the El Pibe de Oro himself.