AAt some point late on a wild night in Lusail, Lionel Messi was asked what had happened there. “A little bit of everything,” he said. There were four goals, eight penalties, 17 yellow cards and one red. In the end, there was only one winner, even if they had to win twice. Maybe even three times. In other words, when Argentina’s goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez, left the field, he did so with a defiant look in the Dutch direction and shouted his expletive message in English to make sure he didn’t get lost.
It was such a night and at that moment it was not over. “We suffered more than we should have,” said Messi. “At 2-0 we had it under control, we shouldn’t have gone into extra time let alone penalties.”
The Netherlands, however, had gone to plan B, launching long, Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst sent through, got one back and then scored a superb free kick to equalize in the 101st minute. And now they were standing here on the spot, as if it wasn’t exciting enough already.
This was what the Dutch wanted, the advantage apparently theirs, but Martínez had saved from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis. Enzo Fernández shot wide at 3-2, creating the chance for another absurd shift as Luuk de Jong made it 3-3. Lautaro Martínez had the last shot, the chance to send them through, distilled the whole thing. “Ugly,” Lionel Scaloni called it. FIFA has now opened a disciplinary case against Argentina.
It’s a long, lonely walk from the halfway line to the penalty spot, or at least it should be, but when Lautaro Martínez’s time came he had company. When asked where his thoughts had gone as he prepared to take the penalty that could lead Argentina to the semi-finals of the World Cup, the striker, coming on as a substitute, said: “Rest and confidence”. Yes, good luck with that. As he left, four Dutch players followed him, led by Denzel Dumfries, and they were still surrounding him almost halfway through.
The assistant referee intervened and sent them back, but there were words. De Jong, who had just scored his penalty, had a word. The goalkeeper, Andries Noppert, had more. Martínez, however, hit his penalty kick into the net and the Argentinian players started to sprint towards him from the halfway line. As they left, and for a while as they ran, at least four – Leandro Paredes, Gonzalo Montiel, German Pezzella, Nicolás Otamendi – and probably more turned to the Dutch players and celebrated in their faces. Otamendi raised his hands to his ears, sneering. “I celebrated in their faces because with every penalty one of their players was saying things to ours,” he said.
They all ran to the left corner and Lautaro Martínez, except Messi who ran for Emiliano Martínez, was in star shape on the grass in the other corner. “He is a beast and today he responded again; we are grateful,’ said the captain. Soon Dumfries ran in the same direction and tried to catch them. He had to be stopped; not just calmed down, but dragged out of there. It took three men.
Just another showdown, just another party, and those two things kept colliding. There was a ball shot into the Dutch bench and flying tackles. Messi accused Weghorst of entering the field and provoking everyone. Martínez was not the first penalty taker to be followed down the field: Ángel Di María came to Fernández’s aid.
You wouldn’t have seen it on TV, but there was also a pitch invader. Like Dumfries, it took many men to control him. And halfway through the referee was “Mateu-Lahozing” again – and yes, that’s a verb, or it should be.
“It’s not easy,” De Jong said. “But he seemed to blow very easily for Argentina.” Messi and Emiliano Martinez thought otherwise. Messi suggested it was possible sanctions that silenced him, while Martínez was unafraid. “He gave everything for them. He gave an extra 10 minutes for no reason. He just wanted them to score. He’s useless.”
That wasn’t all the goalkeeper said, adding: “Van Gaal said, ‘If we go to penalties, we win.’ He should keep his mouth shut.”
Messi said it his way too, standing there in front of the Dutch bench and cupping his ears. Edgar Davids stared at him through dark glasses. The day before, Louis van Gaal had suggested that Messi doesn’t run much. “He talks about good football, but just kicks the ball in for a long time. I don’t like people talking before the game: that’s not part of football,” said Messi.
This was however. “There were things that shouldn’t happen, but it’s a World Cup quarter-final,” Messi said.
By the time the players reappeared – and it was 3am when they did – they had all reached that view, the battle is now over. Asked if Argentina had been too aggressive, Nathan Aké said: “No, no, it shows how much they wanted to win the game; we wanted the same. That’s where the emotion comes in and the fight comes in, that’s just part of it, and we understand that.”
The Manchester City player smiled, unable to answer why Messi was not booked for a clear handball and when it came to the final celebration he admitted: “Maybe you do things out of emotion – I don’t think you are too critical can be.” .”
They had made “1,000 revolutions,” Pezzella said. “It’s a World Cup, there’s a lot at stake, it’s difficult. Everyone wants to win: the players on the bench, the staff. And you can see that,” says De Jong.
If Messi had suggested that these were things that shouldn’t happen, despite all the moralizing, it helped make it more of an event. It may also have been good for Argentina, a team forged in battle, stronger the more they suffer. That’s how they won. Messi interrupted a post-match interview to yell, “What are you looking at silly.” People in the tunnel think Weghorst was waiting to offer him to swap shirts and he was heard saying he wanted to shake hands, but between the language barrier and the fact that this had already gone too far, it didn’t turn out that way, Lautaro Martínez and Sergio Aguero among those who entered. Lisandro Martínez put an end to it and finally headed for the locker room saying, “We’re more of a team.”