A few days before Argentina’s World Cup opener, coach Jorge Sampaoli captured the burden of being Lionel Messi: “Messi has a revolver put to his head called the World Cup and if he doesn’t win it, he’s shot and killed.” It took just a missed penalty to grasp the apt symbolism, as Messi, after he spilled the penalty against Iceland, was mocked and vilified. If Argentina had not progressed to the round of 16, Messi’s missed penalty could have been the most talked about since Roberto Baggio’s in the 1994 World Cup final.
But Messi, as the faithful would say, redeemed himself with a sumptuous goal against Nigeria, a goal so majestic in execution that the Argentinians would have hailed it as a golazo (golden goal). The pass from Ever Banega was inch-perfect and well-weighted, even spectacular, but Messi’s control was even more so. He trapped it with his thigh, which only the best can do without a hint of heaviness, into his left foot without dropping it before swishing the ball past to the right of the goalkeeper with brutal simplicity. Messi has scored goals more beautiful than this one, and he probably will purchase goals with far more grandeur in his career. But given the background of the goal, Messi or his clan of faithful will never forget this goal. Suffice it to say that it was the best of Messi’s goals in the worst of times.
In a way, the World Cup in Russia has been riding on such individual dazzle or disaster rather than concerted team performances. Before Messi’s penalty miss, it was Ronaldo’s curler against Spain that was the oomph moment. Then it was Toni Kroos’s stoppage-time wonder goal against Sweden, before it was, fleetingly, Ronaldo’s penalty-blooper and the elbow petulance. Now it’s back to Messi, capturing in a fortnight the vicissitudes of sporting heroes. And it will be Messi until someone supersedes him in dazzle or disaster. No one, though, will have a revolver planted to his head like Messi.