Messi's reliable genius keeps Argentina's World Cup dream alive
Aging superstar scores in 2-0 win over Mexico
Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.
The men's World Cup has transformed Doha into a strange kind of soccer Louvre.
Normally, the journey from one game to the next requires a flight across an entire country, like in South Africa in 2010 or Brazil in 2014 or Russia four years ago. Here in Qatar, every stadium is within an hour of wherever you are. One afternoon, go watch Kylian Mbappé or Robert Lewandowski. This night, take in Lionel Messi.
At 35, he can seem as much art as artist, and this might be our last chance to see him at a World Cup. The great Messi has said as much: He is making his final try at the only trophy he has never won.
His fifth attempt had begun in shocking fashion: Argentina, among the favourites to win it all because of Messi's desire alone, lost to lightly regarded Saudi Arabia. Messi scored, but on a penalty. In open play, in the channels and fissures of the game where he made his legend, he was shut down and shut out.
Late Saturday at colossal, glittering Lusail Stadium — where this year's final will be played — Messi and his teammates resumed their campaign with what was essentially a must-win game against Mexico. Organizers said they received more media requests for the match than any other so far. It was guaranteed to be an event.
We, along with several thousand nerve-sick Argentines, would witness either joy or tragedy. Either Messi would put on a virtuoso performance and win, or he would fall short, leaving him with only one game left in his World Cup life.
We saw joy.
Argentina won, 2-0, and Messi scored the first — a goal so gorgeous, it was worth every kind of wait to see it.
For the first half, the rollicking atmosphere had made more of an impression than the game itself, which was tight and rhythmless. When Messi walked off the field at halftime, he must have felt the first traces of a terrible weight.
Adding to the drama: Messi and his teammates faced Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, one of the great World Cup enigmas. A fairly ordinary professional, he is roused from his slumber every four years to play out of his mind for Mexico until the round of 16.
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It had felt possible, in the anxious hours before the Argentina match, that Ochoa's inexplicable World Cup magic might somehow triumph over Messi's more reliable genius.
Early in the second half, it seemed as though we would find out. Messi won himself a free kick 24 yards out from Mexico's goal, just off-centre. It was the perfect position for him to score.
Six Mexicans stood in a wall in front of him. He placed the ball and bent over with his hands on his legs, as though he were communing with his own body.
He lifted his shot over the crossbar, and his hands returned to his legs for different reasons.
Then, out of nowhere, out of nothingness, Messi came to life.
In the 64th minute, the ball found his literally golden boots, in the spine of the pitch, 25 yards out. He took one touch and then unleashed the most famous left foot on Earth.
The low, hard shot was inch perfect. Even Ochoa couldn't stop it. The keeper dived to his left, fully extended. The ball passed by his fingertips. Then it whispered inside the post.
By the time it hit the back of the net, Messi was already running to the corner to celebrate, screaming at the top of his lungs, and however many thousands of Argentines in the stadium, however many millions of them around the world, had felt all the air go out of theirs.
After some frantic late Mexican pressing, Enzo Fernández made his own wonder-strike in the 87th minute to give everyone permission to breathe.
Messi was making his 21st World Cup appearance, equalling Diego Maradona's iconic Argentine record. He will get at least one more to break it, and it will be memorable no matter what. Argentina still needs a win in its last group-stage game against Poland on Nov. 30 to guarantee itself a place in the knockout rounds.
They will probably need Messi to deliver it to them, and he seems determined to oblige. He knows these are his last days to be the painter, before he becomes the paint.