DOHA: Pablo Aimar was in tears, his hands covering his face, as Lionel Messi wheeled off in celebration, arms wide open in accepting the adulation of those at the Lusail Stadium on Saturday night.

In the stands, a young fan jumped for joy, hugging his sister who was seated in the row behind him. Once they’d left the embrace, the boy’s parents, in the row before him, reached out to wipe the tears off his eyes. This was just one family celebrating. All around them, Argentina fans were bouncing in delight. By the time they caught their breath and exhaled, there was finally realisation of the moment of pure magic they’d just witnessed.

It was that kind of a goal, one out of nothing. But that’s what Messi does: the unimaginable, the unthinkable, the stratospheric, the liberating.

Argentina’s World Cup hopes were on thin ice as a feisty contest against Mexico went past the hour mark, still locked at 0-0. Messi, though, was holding the key. Receiving the ball at the edge of the box, he took a touch and then looked up before swinging his left foot at it. The connection was pure, Guillermo Ochoa had no chance, the low shot was beyond him before he even touched the ground.

Aimar, Messi’s childhood idol, the silky former number 10 turned Argentina’s assistant coach, tried to but couldn’t hide his emotional release on the bench. Aimar was once the heir apparent of the larger than life Diego Maradona, the man who led Argentina to their last World Cup title in 1986. Messi has taken up that mantle and this, potentially his fifth and last World Cup, is where he wants to fulfill his longstanding ambition.

“Apart from having top players, we have Leo,” exuded Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni after the 2-0 win — sealed after Messi laid the ball for Enzo Fernandez to score with a superb curler three minutes from the end — that saw his side wrest back control of their destiny at the World Cup.

At the outset, it didn’t look rosy; Argentina’s campaign looked over as soon as it had started — the stunning loss to Saudi Arabia setting off the alarm bells. On the eve of the game, Scaloni had reiterated that his team “was going to stand up again”.

Friday was also a day of remembrance for Argentina. It was the second anniversary of Maradona’s death. There was a celebration of Maradona’s life at the CONMEBOL’s fan zone in Doha, graced by his former team-mates and a huge number of Argentina fans. Messi posted a picture of Maradona, his coach at his second World Cup in 2010, on his Instagram.

At the remembrance, Daniel Bertoni — a member of Argentina’s squad in their maiden World Cup triumph in 1978, who played with Maradona in 1982 — spoke about Messi’s quest. “Messi is the ace of spades, you have to put the other cards around him,” he said. “I think he has to be accompanied by the team.”

But here was Messi, carrying the weight of a nation’s expectation, driving his team and changing the momentum of the game with his genius to draw level with Maradona on eight World Cup goals for Argentina.

“He showed that in the space of 30 seconds or so he can be lethal,” said Mexico head coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, who has managed Messi for both Argentina and Barcelona.

Praises for Messi were also sung on social media.

“What a goal. What a moment. What a man. Messi strikes,” tweeted former England striker Gary Lineker, who is on broadcast duty in Qatar.

Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina’s all-time top-scorer at World Cups with 10, tweeted a picture of Messi celebrating with the caption “Vamos Argentina”.

At the media centre in Lusail after the game was Jorge Valdano, a member of Argentina’s triumphant 1986 squad with Maradona. Valdano wasn’t speaking to the press but when one member of the television network he’s working for in Qatar came up to him and said “Messi”, he gave a thumbs up with a wide smile on his face.

Argentina are still alive and kicking and Messi’s mission of lifting the World Cup lives on.

“Another World Cup started for us today,” Messi said after the game. “We can’t give up now, we have finals from this point and we can’t make any mistakes.”

The first final for Argentina comes against Poland on Wednesday, when they will look to confirm a spot in the last 16.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2022

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