LUSAIL, Qatar – During the first 63 minutes of Argentina’s surprisingly crucial second game at the 2022 World Cup, Lionel Messi was the epitome of frustration.
Switching between the right flank and center of the field, he barely touched the ball against a team from Mexico determined to contain him.
On the rare occasions when he did, he was trying to do too much. With a bunch of El Tri defenders following his every move, there was always a sea of greenshirts around him. He had beaten one or two, but was dispossessed before he could break into the open or play a quick one-two with a teammate.
With his team on point and struggling to break through, Leo Messi found his usual magic in leading Argentina to a 2-0 victory over Mexico.
With nearly 90,000 expectant fans at the Lusail Iconic Stadium watching his every move, the tension built to an almost unbearable level as the seconds ticked by. Could it really end up as it has so often appeared in his national team jersey for the greatest player who ever lived: in misery?
The difference this time was that there would be no chance of redemption. The 35-year-old Messi announced before the tournament that this World Cup, his fifth, would be his last. That magnificent gold trophy is the only one he has never won, the only blemish on an otherwise incomparable career.
This year should have been different. This is the best Albiceleste team Messi has ever had around him. This supporting cast helped him win the Copa America last summer, his first title for his country. The end of the storybook would come at the final whistle of the World Cup final next month in the same stadium.
But a shock loss to Saudi Arabia in Argentina’s opening match in Qatar caused the pressure and doubt to creep back in. Argentina needed to beat – or at least not lose – Mexico on Saturday to restore its championship dreams and the hopes of football fans around the world. that Messi would get the farewell he so richly deserves.
Leave it to the little magician to do it all himself.
Just after the hour, Messi showed exactly why he’s the GOAT – and why he’s far from done. Bursting into a void in front of El Tri’s back line, he found himself with the ball on his famous left foot.
Time stood still. Messi bent his leg back and stroked the ball across the turf, just out of reach of Mexican goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, just inside the far post.
The goal thrilled tens of thousands of traveling Argentine fans behind the goal. It was a perfect attack from a perfect player, and it came when he and she needed it most.
Even the Mexican supporters in attendance – the boisterous, deafening crowd was roughly evenly split between green and baby blue – certainly couldn’t wish him that.
That’s how revered Messi has become in world football. He has given football fans so much pleasure for so long that it is almost impossible to protest against him. It doesn’t matter if you are a Brazilian or a Madridista, everyone understands and appreciates how special Messi is.
With all the tension released into the airwaves, after Messi’s moment of brilliance, Argentina took over. Enzo Fernandez put the game away on an assist from Messi with three minutes of regular time remaining.
Of course, the job is not complete. It’s just starting. Argentina have just three points from their first two games and are yet to face Robert Lewandowski’s Poland in the Group C final on Wednesday – who beat the Saudis 2-0 a few hours earlier. But La Albiceleste did what they needed on Saturday. Instead of crumbling under the weight of huge expectations, they reacted and reclaimed their status as one of the title favourites.
Now they have both momentum and every neutral behind them.
After staring the unthinkable elimination from World Cup contention for over an hour before playing their third first round game, the dream remains alive.
Messi has a mission. It’s not over yet, not by a long shot.
His heroic 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.
Read more of the World Cup:
Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Prior to 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 @By Doug McIntyre.
Get more out of FIFA World Cup 2022 Follow your favorites for information on games, news and more