World Cup 2018 qualifiers

On a night Argentina needed him most, Messi’s genius dragged his team to the 2018 World Cup

Argentina nearly buckled conceding to Ecuador in the first minute, but then the star striker showed up with a hat-trick to remember.

With only 244 days to go for the 2018 Fifa World Cup – the quadrennial High Mass of the global game – the excitement among football purists is building. The final team list has almost lined up for the four-week madcap and sacred roller coaster of high-octane, nail-biting, and emotional tournament football.

The journey to Russia 2018 is a slow-cook, a grandmother’s roast, but one that allows for a profound physical joy. It’s been pulsating, shirt-shaking and utterly tooth-rattling: a Bildungs process and a profound romance with plenty of heartbreak.

It’s been fascinating, with Iceland’s first foray, Scotland’s gut-wrenching failures, the Netherlands’ demise, Syria’s tale of footballing prowess and political co-option, Peru’s renaissance in South America, and the United States’s compounded misery in the hexagonal: all part of the beautiful game’s rich tapestry.

And then, there was Argentina – or rather, as it would turn out, Lionel Messi. How did La Albiceleste end up in a position where they needed a result against Ecuador on the final day of World Cup qualifying? Administrative chaos at the Argentinean FA, and Mess(i)-ntegrating caused much chaos in the national team.

Back in 2016, the FC Barcelona star retired from the national team following another agonising Copa America defeat to Chile. Messi was dejected with a deja vu too many, but made a U-turn later.

He still spearheads the front line, but for all the attacking riches in Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, and Paulo Dybala, Argentina had scored just 16 goals in their campaign.

The collective floundered and the recent appointment of Jorge Sampaoli did little to bolster the goal-scoring tally. His high-octane, gung-ho style of play was not the sensible approach Argentina required to push the team over the finish line.

Argentina’s existential crisis

The crisis spoke of existential problems in the Argentinean game. They have struggled at the youth level and nosedived at the senior, where the supply line of cerebral midfielders has run dry, forcing Messi to drop deeper. The ever-indignant stagnation and the incredulous disorganisation shackled the national team.

Thus, at the altitude in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, Argentina could freeze – and they did. They fluffed their lines after just 40 seconds when Romario Ibarra thumped the ball past Sergio Romero after a neat headed one-two with Ordonez.

The Argentineans detested playing at altitude. The majority of South American teams do, as the conditions are precarious for unacclimatised visitors. Brazil’s Neymar said that “they are inhumane”. The lower oxygen level in the air makes breathing difficult, and playing a normal game impossible.

As it stood, Argentina were out of the World Cup. In the opening quarter, Messi and Angel Di Maria showed flashes of brilliance, highlighting the absurdity of Argentina’s situation. Ecuador versus Argentina was very much a surrealist picture, a low-oxygen, illogical scene of footballing dissonance.

Messi, the magician

Argentina nearly buckled, overcome by a dystopian reality. This was always going to be a night of fine margins and unconventional permutations. An atrocious Argentina did little to soothe the creeping unease.

Enter the ultimate thaumaturge of the game – Messi, the genius who has shaped the modern game, but whom Argentina have found so hard to fit in. On this night, he defied the Messi conundrum and dragged the Argentinean ensemble of mere mortals to the World Cup. Apart from Javier Mascherano, Argentina were often paralysed and anxious, even with a nervy spell in the second half.

Messi is a magician, his strength is provoking our wonderment again and again with his simple movements. He takes the ball, fakes, goes right, goes right, and shoots. His genteel game is based on arched feints, sideway springs, and a matrix of simple movements. His outsize star and twinkling feet saved Argentina: Messi the Messi-ah, forgive us the infantile pun.

His hat-trick was superb, his third goal a touch of instant innovation. On the hour, he burst forward and jinxed to the left before applying his cerebral vision to spot goalkeeper Maximo Banguera off his line. Once again, Messi peaked when required the most. Now to see what he does in Russia next year.

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