IAN HERBERT: Messi takes centre stage as Argentina progress in Qatar

IAN HERBERT: Argentina’s optimism is built on the belief that glory is written in the stars for Lionel Messi this time… and this was our first glimpse of the diminutive No 10 at his vintage best at the Qatar World Cup

  • Argentina book their place in the finals last sixteen with a 2-0 win over Poland 
  • Lionel Messi took centre stage once again and was awarded a first half spot kick 
  • The dubious foul was given by VAR but Wojciech Szczesny saved Messi’s penalty
  •  Argentina fans want to see Lionel Messi win the World Cup in his 1000th game

The song the Argentinians sing here is about optimism. ‘Muchachos, ahora nos volvimos a ilusionar,’ it goes – ‘Boys, we have our hopes up again’ – and as it rang around this place last night you gave thanks for this extraordinary football nation and fervently prayed that they would prevail.

Yes, this was a story about the beautiful, diminutive number 10, stepping out through a forest of cameras and, when the football started, slaloming through the white shirted Poles in a way which made their manager’s comparison of him with ‘80s and ‘90s Italian alpine ski champion Alberto Tomba so appropriate.

But it was also the story about the country whose supporters eclipse all others, arriving in this weird, barren landscape and reminding us that wherever a World Cup is staged, their vibrancy will be a constant. When the second goal flew into the net like a missile, the stadium camera panned to a woman in their number whose eyes were red with tears.

Argentina’s World Cup journey is being led by the last dance of their number 10 Lionel Messi 

The Argentinian fans were in full voice as their team booked their place in the last sixteen 

That’s how it is for the Argentines. Football is more important than life and when they found themselves staring down the barrel of elimination before this night began, nothing could keep the emotions in. ‘For us, it was life or death every game,’ Gabriel Calderon, a star of the great ‘80s side remembered before the game.

Never has a World Cup needed that raw emotion more than this one. The artifice and surface gloss of Qatar’s World Cup reveals themselves wherever you look. This is a place desperate for life, spontaneity and something substantial.

The Qataris seem to have decided that manufactured stadium ‘entertainment’ at a monumental decibel levels is needed, so every game is prefaced by two ‘presenters’ screaming into microphones. Argentina and their supporters didn’t need a build-up. The choir was at full pitch an hour before this began.

Their optimism is built on the belief that glory is written in the stars for Lionel Messi this time. Their talk is of la milesmia – ‘the thousandth’ – because if their team does reach the final it will be the maestro’s 1000th game.

All eyes were on Lionel Messi as he looks to finally win the World Cup with his country in Qatar

Messi was involved in a dubious VAR call that saw a penalty awarded but his spot kick was saved by Poland goalie Wojciech Szczesny

He didn’t let them down. Here was the first glimpse of the peak, vintage Messi – fastening onto the ball and thundering into those 20-yard runs which will be replayed over and over when he has long gone. There was a thrill to witnessing this which we just didn’t have last Saturday in the win over a Mexican side intent only on clobbering him.

The Argentine support even took the wretched VAR system up to the Gods, through their reaction to the dubious penalty their legend Messi won. It was electricity when that was called in their favour. The reaction was no less intense when justice was done and he missed the penalty.

The Qataris replayed one of Messi’s early efforts – a near post shot that Wojciech Szcesny scrambled away – in a video-game format on the stadium screen. The ‘virtual recreation replay’ they are calling it. 

Fans are desperate to see Messi reach his 1000th game which would be the World Cup Final 

Someone needs to tell them that you can’t recreate that genius in artificial 3D format. Messi ran for that ball and took it straight to the corner flag, like a street scene straight out of his native Rosario.

The supporters were still singing their anthems in the stadium and bouncing, longer after the players had left the field. The team’s manager Lionel Scaloni has been trying to create a sense of perspective. ‘The sun will rise, no matter what happens tomorrow,’ he said before this game. 

But don’t try telling these people that. Their team have just produced one of the performances of tournament to date. They have their hopes up again.

Goals from Alexis Mac Allister and Julian Alverez were enough to see off Poland on Wednesday

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