In Doha, the World Cup is Lionel Messi. Or, Lionel Messi is the World Cup. It’s hard to tell which at this point – the city is saturated with him. Messi is the face of billboards and the blue and white of flags. He is rip-off merch and dodgy Photoshop jobs, and every second No 10 shirt in the streets (hi, Diego).
Last Tuesday he was the “Where’s Messi” chants of Saudi Arabia fans at the Metro, and on Saturday the honks of car horns when he scored against Mexico. On Wednesday – even after missing a penalty against Poland – he was cheered from the stands made of 974 shipping containers.
Messi is not even short in this country – he is as tall as the skyscrapers digitally enhanced with his super-sized goal celebration. He is, after all, Qatar’s luxury brand: Paris Saint-Germain. He is Indian and Nepalese and Sri Lankan, too, and especially Bangladeshi. He is also, counterintuitively, Saudi Arabian.
Doha is so Messi right now it is almost satirical. And maybe it sort of is – he has won the Ballon d’Or seven times, but not a single World Cup. That is why this tournament is all about him. Why Argentina must go all the way for their 35-year-old GOAT who now has everything except the most glorious of sendoffs.
It is also why an Australian defender is sharing his devilish plot to foil the grand plan, but also being a bit nice about it too, because it’s Messi. “Unfortunately,” says Miloš Degenek, “I am a big fan of his. But I’d love to win the World Cup probably more than [I’d love] him to win the World Cup.”
Degenek would have been right behind Argentina to go all the way for their captain and talisman, except that Australia now have to face them in the round of 16. “They’re obviously driven by the motivation that it could be Messi’s last World Cup, and he wants to win it and end on a high,” Degenek says. “For us, it’s to stop that.
“I’ve always loved Messi. I think he’s the greatest to ever play the game. [But] it’s not an honour to play against him, because he’s just a human, as we all are. It’s an honour to be in the round of 16 of a World Cup. Whether we played Argentina or Poland, it still would’ve been an honour to represent Australia in the round of 16 of a World Cup.”
The fact the Socceroos are here at all is something of sporting folklore in Australia. Wednesday’s upset of Denmark did the unthinkable, and now all bets are off – even against the world’s third-ranked nation and its irresistible playmaker who has betrayed no signs he will bow out quietly.
Argentina have their eyes fixed on a quarter-final date with either the Netherlands or United States. That is how this story goes – everyone is saying it. Except, that is, for the 38th-ranked Australians, who love a good dose of external doubt to see them through.
“It’s going to be a difficult game,” says Degenek. “Obviously we’ll be playing against probably the best footballer ever to grace the game. Apart from that, it’s 11 against 11. There’s not 11 Messis, there’s one. We know their squad is full of stars – [Paulo] Dybala is on the bench and [Lautaro] Martínez comes off the bench, so it’s a squad that’s immaculate.”
The numbers around the market value of each of these squads have been crunched elsewhere, but suffice to say there is something of a disparity. Australia’s main well of strength in this most unexpected of campaigns has been the collective. A star team not a team of stars, as they say. How that stacks up to a team of stars who, until last week, were unbeaten in 36 games, will not become clear until Saturday night (Sunday morning AEDT) at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
But surely there is a plan for Messi? “We’ll get him in the tunnel,” says head coach Graham Arnold. “No, sorry, that was a joke. But the thing is, if you focus too much on Messi you forget about the other players. I think [Poland] focused too much on Messi. Nearest player, pick him up. It can’t be just one, and it’s not just about stopping Messi – they’ve also got some very good players as well.”
The Socceroos – before their history-making back-to-back wins and clean sheets against Tunisia and Denmark – endured a chastening tournament-opener against France, who have their own PSG super-brand in Kylian Mbappé. Arnold chalked that 4-1 loss off as a “friendly”, a learning experience.
“Obviously this one can’t be classified as a friendly,” Degenek says. “France [are] probably the favourites at the World Cup at the moment with the players they have. But I think Argentina, after their first loss, have just turned up another level, decided to play to the best of their abilities, and come into every game with a determination to win.
“We’ve learned a lot from the France game. We showed them a bit of respect in that first game, and I think [Argentina] will be a completely different game. But it’s two completely different styles of football – France play one way, Argentina will play a different way.”