On Wednesday night, the prevalent feeling inside Qatar’s Stadium 974 — a football stadium constructed from its namesake shipping containers — was that the longer the game remained goalless, the longer Poland could contain Argentina and Lionel Messi and have higher chances of getting a result that could potentially send Lionel Scaloni’s side out of the FIFA World Cup.
The number 974 is also Qatar’s calling code, and thousands of Argentina fans at the venue, who had turned the stands white and blue, were hoping Messi would answer their call.
Having dominated the proceedings from the start and needing a victory to be certain about staying alive in Qatar, Argentina got a penalty in the 38th minute after Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny was adjudged to have fouled Messi when he was going for a header.
It looked soft, Szczesny slightly grazing Messi’s face, but here was the chance for Argentina’s talisman to give his side the lead from the spot, to set them on their way to the round of 16. Messi has wilted in the face of pressure at the World Cup before. But not here surely, not at potentially the last World Cup of his storied career, not in his last crack at winning it.
But just as the Argentina fans across the stadium were getting ready to celebrate, Szczesny cut them short, the goalkeeper diving to his left to turn away Messi’s effort.
It wasn’t too long before those fans found their voice. Alexis Mac Allister’s scuffed effort got their first goal a minute into the second half before Julian Alvarez thumped in a brilliant finish in the 67th to send Argentina into a round-of-16 tie against Australia.
Messi might have fluffed the chance to get on the scoresheet but he remained hugely involved. Quick to take people on, he created plenty of chances and redoubled his efforts after the penalty miss. And his creativity left Poland dizzy at times.
It was, therefore, natural that the arrival of the game’s biggest superstar was being eagerly anticipated at the mixed zone with its flashy lights, television cameras and throngs of reporters looking for that one piece of quote.
Some checked their watches. It was already 1:30am, with the game having ended minutes before midnight. All the Argentina players had walked through; Poland’s players, including their star striker Robert Lewandoski and Szczesny, who joked that he’d made a bet with Messi that the penalty wouldn’t be awarded, were long gone.
But no one dared step out. It was because Messi wasn’t there yet. And then in an instant, all hell broke loose after someone cried, “Messi, Messi”.
In came the 35-year-old alongside the Argentina media officer. The broadcasters, who beamed the World Cup across the globe, giving FIFA millions in return, were the ones who got the first chance to speak.
A World Cup volunteer assigned for the mixed zone told a colleague that Messi looked so much different on television. “He seems a lot smaller in real life,” she says.
As soon as the diminutive genius stops for one Argentine broadcaster, there was a swarm of television reporters gathering around him, pushing their microphones closer to him. They wanted every word. The cameramen zoomed in. It was a scrum.
This is Messi’s magnetic presence.
Some of those holding the microphone stretched out their other arm in an attempt to get a selfie. One of them asked for an autograph. It was all happening. Everyone wanted a piece of the legend who was looking to guide Argentina to their first World Cup title since the devilish angel Diego Maradona took them to glory in 1986.
The broadcasters were separated from the written press and just as Messi was about to cross that divide, a volunteer said there was translation available for Spanish if the voice recording was available.
This sparked an almighty scrum — members of the written press divided into sections according to spoken languages all converged upon Messi, all of them extending their bodies to the full to get their recording devices closer to him. Some were on their toes in order to get as close as possible.
“I was really frustrated to miss the penalty because I knew a goal could’ve changed the whole match,” said Messi. “But I think it made the team come out stronger. It was a big match and we’re happy that we’ve achieved our objective of finishing top of the group after starting with the defeat to Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia’s stunning win had sent shockwaves but Messi had put Argentina back on track with a stunning goal and an assist in their second game which they won against Mexico. Here, he believed Mac Allister’s goal made the difference.
“After the first goal, everything went our way,” he said radiantly. “We did what we’d been trying to do since the start of the tournament. That gives us confidence for the future.
Australia will be tough opponents and we watched them [beat Denmark] earlier in the day. The goal is to win.“
Messi is now four wins away from lifting the World Cup. But for now, the focus remains on beating Australia.
“I’m tired but it’s the same for everyone,” he said. “Tomorrow we will rest and prepare for the next game [against Australia on Sunday].”
Such is Messi’s appeal that even after he was done talking, he was followed by reporters as he took the last few bends on the way out.
Some among the reporters were trying to put in one last question, some just trying to get another glimpse of the superstar who perhaps won’t be playing the next World Cup.
And as soon as Messi headed out, the lights went off in the mixed zone; the energy had just been sucked out of it.