LUSAIL, Qatar — In the opening 63 minutes of Argentina’s surprisingly decisive second game at the 2022 World Cup, Lionel Messi was the picture of frustration.
He alternated between the right flank and center of the field, barely touching the ball against a Mexican side eager to contain it.
On the rare occasions that he did, he tried to do too much. With a bevy of El Tri defenders watching his every move, he was always surrounded by a sea of green shirts. He would hit one or two only to be disowned before he could invade open space or play a quick one-two with a teammate.
With his team teetering on the brink and struggling to break through, Leo Messi found his usual magic to guide Argentina to a 2-0 win over Mexico.
With nearly 90,000 expectant fans at the Lusail Iconic Stadium watching his every move, the tension grew to almost unbearable levels as the seconds went by. Could it really end up as it has so many times before in his national jersey for the greatest player who ever lived: in misery?
The difference this time was that there would be no chance of redemption. 35-year-old Messi announced ahead of the tournament that this World Cup, his fifth, would be his last. This beautiful gold trophy is the only one he has never won, the only blemish in an otherwise unparalleled career.
This year should be different. This is the best Albiceleste team Messi has ever had around him. That supporting cast helped him win the Copa America last summer, his first title for his country. The picture-book ending should come next month with the final whistle of the World Cup final at the same stadium.
But a shock defeat to Saudi Arabia in Argentina’s opening game in Qatar put the pressure and doubts back on. Argentina needed to beat Mexico – or at least not lose – on Saturday to restore their championship dreams and the hopes of football fans around the globe that Messi would get the send-off he deserved.
Leave it to the little wizard to do everything on his own.
Just after the hour mark, Messi showed exactly why he’s the GOAT – and why he’s far from done. He burst into space in front of El Tri’s back line and found himself with the ball on his famous left foot.
time stood still. Messi stretched his leg back and brushed the ball across the turf, just out of reach of Mexico keeper Memo Ochoa, just inside the far post.
The goal brought raptures from tens of thousands of traveling Argentina fans behind the goal. It was a perfect shot from a perfect player, and it came when he and she needed it most.
Even the Mexican fans in attendance – the raucous, ear-splitting crowd roughly evenly split between green and baby blue – couldn’t blame him.
That’s how revered Messi has become in global football. He’s been bringing joy to football lovers for so long that it’s almost impossible to cheer for him. It doesn’t matter if you’re Brazilian or Madridista, everyone can understand and appreciate how special Messi is.
With all the excitement vented into the airwaves, Argentina took over after Messi’s brilliant moment. Enzo Fernandez ended the game with an assist from Messi with three minutes of regular time remaining.
Of course, the work is not finished yet. It’s just beginning. Argentina have just three points from their first two games and are yet to meet Robert Lewandowski’s Poland, who beat the Saudis 2-0 a few hours earlier, in Wednesday’s Group C final. But La Albiceleste did what they needed on Saturday. Instead of collapsing under the weight of the enormous expectations, they reacted and reclaimed their status as one of the title favorites.
Now they have momentum and any neutrality behind them.
After spending more than an hour staring in the face of the unthinkable – being knocked out of World Cup competition before they’ve even played their third round match – the dream remains alive.
Messi is on a mission. It’s far from over.
His heroics on Saturday proved that Argentina and the GOAT can still win this World Cup even if he has to drag his team to the podium all by himself.
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Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer at ESPN and Yahoo Sports and has covered the United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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