If you have tears, prepare to save them for Tuesday at the earliest. There is an almost unbearable poignancy to watching Messi these days. There is this thing we have watched, discussed, cared about all our lives, something in which we have invested an unreasonable portion of our souls, and he is the best we have seen at that thing and every game could be the last we see of him. But the end has been deferred one more game.
You can add caveats to that. Those over the age of 50 will have their memories. Messi will not retire the instant his World Cup is over, but this is the stage that clearly matters most to him. Add a Ligue Un title or two, even a Champions League with Paris Saint-Germain and it will barely register on his legacy. Add the World Cup and that one last quibble about him will disappear. His every game at this World Cup is an emblem of the transient fragility of human beauty, of the eternal march of time.
Little wonder the Argentina camp is perpetually so fraught. Little wonder there is such a sense of yearning. Little wonder there is such a sense of anxious communion between team and fans. But what has never been clear is whether that emotional energy sustains Argentina or suppresses them. How often can they go to the well? How often can they end games emotionally spent and pick themselves up to go again?
Patterns are always there if you look for them. For Argentina, this is not merely about Messi but about the era, the spirit, he represents. It was in Qatar in 1995 that José Pékerman led Argentina to their first Under-20 World Cup since 1979, initiating an unprecedented run of five successes in seven tournaments. The hope, the expectation even, had been that that golden run would lead to success at senior level, but between the Copas América of 1993 and 2021, Argentina won nothing. Only three players who were part of those youth successes remain in the squad: Messi, who won in 2005, and Papu Gómez and Ángel Di María, who won in 2007.
And yet the influence of Pékerman, who believed he was developing not just a player but a person and whose approach was far more holistic than focusing simply on football, remains. It was he who, as national coach, selected Messi for his first senior World Cup in 2006, while the current coach, Lionel Scaloni, and two of his assistants, Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel, were part of Pékerman’s squad that won the Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia in 1997. It was in Qatar that this era of Argentinian football effectively began and the dream, 27 years on, it will be in Qatar that it reaches its glorious apotheosis.
But that demands the inspiration of Messi. He has always been a player who works to his own rhythm and, as he has aged, so the tendency to wander around casually assessing the opposition for weaknesses has become more pronounced. Eight years ago, at the beginning of his reincarnation as a pragmatist, Louis van Gaal successfully shut down Messi in a World Cup semi-final by setting Nigel De Jong to man-mark him. But Messi these days is harder to pick up, a sprite floating on the periphery of the game until the moment is right. You can mark a man; much harder to mark a ghost.
To talk about his low running stats makes no sense: he is sui generis, a player who can only function operating at a supremely low tempo. It may mean that his teammates have to compensate for his almost total lack of defensive work, but it also means the opposition has to adjust; he is not where he ought to be, often barely involved in attacks until suddenly, lethally, he is.
Was anything on when Messi picked up the ball after 35 minutes? Nothing much it seemed, not to mortals. But a momentary pause was enough to throw Nathan Aké and create an opening, though which Messi slid a through-ball, preposterous in conception, perfect in execution. Before anyone else had even registered the possibility of a possibility, Messi had found Nahuel Molina with a pass so perfectly weighted that the right wing-back was almost compelled to score.
Even with the Jack and the Beanstalk aesthetic of the Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert’s attempt to psych him out, a penalty would have been a mundane way to win the game, contrary to the way this Argentina have lived always on the brink. For them at this tournament, the only place for the heart is in the mouth. Argentina might even have won it easily given how Messi twice unlocked the Dutch in the second half only for the clumsiness of teammates to let him down.
But to ask what he might do in a better team is to miss the point. That Diego Maradona inspired a team who were far from world-beaters was his great glory. Something similar, right at the end of the era that began in Doha 27 years ago, might yet be Messi’s.