When it came down to it, his goal wasn’t even the winner. Nigeria equalised a little after half time and it took a Marcos Rojo volley to finally drag Argentina over the line. As Rojo ran to the touchline to celebrate, Lionel Messi found him almost instantly, jumping on his back while the rest of his teammates smothered him in their joy. It was enough to take Argentina to the knockouts, to let the wonder of Messi’s goal give us pause and crucially, to keep them optimistic.
Each knockout game is simultaneously a fresh start and the latest hurdle and the time in between is pregnant with expectation
The latter stages of the World Cup are not only a remarkable test of physical and emotional resolve; they also inspire a specific type of hope that relies acutely on the unknown. Until the next game is played, the possibility of a glorious victory, and the ensuing jubilation, feels accessible. Each knockout game is simultaneously a fresh start and the latest hurdle and the time in between is pregnant with expectation.
In the moment that Rojo’s volley found the back of the net, Argentina fell head first into this hope. It didn’t matter that they would be playing the much fancied France in the last 16 or that it had taken until the dying minutes of their last group game to ensure they would get there. Days of anticipation were ahead, the adrenalin of a late victory lingering.
For their first two group games, the story had been Messi’s absence, demonstrating the remarkable impact a world changing footballer can have with less than remarkable appearances. Except Messi can never be completely missing, his presence in the Argentinian team a burden that seems to be carried both by the player and the entire nation. Against Iceland, he was passive, even in his penalty miss, which was as tame as it could have been critical. Iceland’s first ever World Cup game ended in a deserved draw. Against Croatia, Argentina fell apart with a whimper and again, Messi remained central if only for his impotence. His team were abject and it was hard not to wonder why he had returned from international retirement to be a passenger in a sinking ship. And then, with the indignity of an early exit nearing, Messi turned up.
Watching football in the epoch of Messi and Ronaldo is at once a privilege and a gross overstatement of the recurrence of greatness
The first thing I noticed about his goal was Éver Banega’s pass. There were five Nigerians and a back line between him and Messi—his ball disappeared them all. It’s probably a mark of Messi’s backlog of excellence that I didn’t immediately register how precisely he had received and played Banega’s assist. Watching football in the epoch of Messi and Ronaldo is at once a privilege and a gross overstatement of the recurrence of greatness. Quite simply, this almost never happens and likely won’t happen again but while it is here, it is difficult, amongst artificially raised standards, not to be occasionally blunted to their immense ability.
Messi’s first touch was with his left thigh, the ball from Banega soaring in over his shoulder. He watched it land but didn’t break stride; his faith in his body to react and move in sequence to the ball instinctive. It dropped from his thigh to the outside of his left foot, following his run with such precision it was as though we were witnessing divine intervention. I have an old and storied fascination with first touches, particularly ones where all the power from the preceding ball is muted and remade into something else. In this instance, Messi’s thigh absorbed all the force from Banega’s pass, and with it any doubt that the ball belonged entirely to him.
The move finished with Messi’s right foot guiding a shot past Francis Uzoho into the corner of the goal. He didn’t look up until the conclusion was secure and celebrated on his knees, pointing to the sky as though acknowledging his otherworldly gifts.
There is a moment before he is joined by any teammates where Mess is alone, looking up. It is hard not to watch this moment and notice him visibly exhale, a little of the cloud lift. At the time I was sure the narrative had shifted, Argentina had arrived as had the vindication of Lionel Messi. Hindsight is a lot of things but watching mid-game goal celebrations through its lens can be especially bittersweet.
It’s a shortcoming of our collective imagination that the binaries of success and failure have straitjacketed how we are able to comprehend talent
We know now that Messi’s goal didn’t decide the game and Argentina’s late victory did not mark the start of anything except for an eventual demise at the hands of France. So, in the context of loss, how should we honour incredible goals in our memory? And, amongst the landscape of unfulfilled national hope, how should we remember individual genius?
Despite the career we have watched him have, there remain stubborn murmurings focused on what Messi has not been able to win. The demand seems to be—if you are really the greatest, it is not enough to only be great, you must also be better than the sum of your team’s component parts through the duration of a tournament, as though greatness has only one iteration. Just like Messi may never turn up on a wet and windy weeknight in Stoke, he does not need to win the World Cup with Argentina to prove anything. It’s a shortcoming of our collective imagination that the binaries of success and failure have straitjacketed how we are able to comprehend talent. And this is not to say that Messi is underestimated or undervalued but it is precisely this pedestal that he is dragged down from when he assumes the cornflower blue of Argentina. If he hadn’t already won so much perhaps he could be much more easily forgiven.
What Messi delivered in that moment was a perfect goal in a narrative arc that was desperate for it. However, like all compelling stories, it was ultimately not enough to undo a lumbering Javier Mascherano and a young French team propelled by fate and fearlessness. How we choose to remember Messi’s place in international football is not clear just yet but we should consider this goal, ruthless and poised, as worthy of being afforded its own small legacy as one of the World Cup greats.