They have always called him la pulga – the flea – because of the way he skims and skips across the course of a game, barely detectable, though the Lionel Messi we witnessed on Tuesday night was el toro, a bull barrelling and bouncing through challenges, actively looking for them, as he drove Argentina into the final which has always seemed his destiny.
The clips of him that were playing on the Lusail Boulevard, the noisy, iridescent walkway they have built a few hundred yards from this place, captures a purer form of Messi, with the ball at his feet, though a rawer and more physical version of the player lives in the mind’s eye today.
It was perhaps most graphic in the moment he fought to take the ball back towards the end of the first half, when Croatia’s uncompromising RB Leipzig defender Josko Gvardiol had just taken it from him.
Messi simply stood in the space to which a subsequent pass was hit, so it cannoned onto his head, then remained, back to Gvardiol, in a stance which told that he would not be surrendering it.
It was the same when he grabbed the golden ball they have created for this stage of the tournament and despatched the penalty which took him past Gabriel Batistuta as the scorer of most World Cup goals for Argentina.
It has been a different kind of Messi Argentina have seen here and the scenes in this stadium last Friday night, when he taunted and berated the Dutch after beating them – something closer to the manner of Diego Maradona – revealed as much.
Back in Buenos Aires, there has not been such universal certainty about his actions that night. La Nacion, the respected daily title in the capital, said of Messi after those scenes that “the extraordinary footballer could not contain the vulgar man.”
It was the opinion of the paper’s sports editor Cristian Gross that “knowing how to win is the true measure of conduct and values.”
It’s a minority view of course. For those singing the Muchachos anthem of hope and optimism, which has been ringing around this city for nearly four weeks, Messi’s aggression is the sign of a different kind of leadership. The leadership which saw him lead the team out into the warm-up.
There has always been someone senior to him in Argentina on this high stage: Juan Roman Riquelme in 2006, Gabriel Heinze and Javier Mascherano in 2010, when Maradona was the coach and figurehead. In 2014, Messi was captain, although Mascherano was the real leader. In 2018, there was no leader at all. Now, at last, Messi is that man.
There was a telling moment at the end of the match on Tuesday when he described Argentina as “my whole team” with a hint of appropriation and their subservience to him.
That’s certainly how has it has felt so often here, with them doing much of his running, his pressing and his bidding, while he sprinkles the gold dust. It’s not always fully appreciated what Messi brings from those whom you would not expect to be stars on this stage.
For much of this run to the final, Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister has been his wing man and running mate. On Tuesday night it was Julian Alvarez Messi helped to shine.
The 22-year-old striker has admitted he has found it hard to adapt to the Premier League at Manchester City. Opponents sit deep, allowing him less scope to get in behind defenders. He finds so many players around him that time is scarce. There has also been the matter of being Erling Haaland’s understudy.
But the pace of these World Cup games is slower, the defending a breeze by comparison and shambolic last night, when Alvarez ran through the Croatia defence to put his first goal in. Alvarez was the beneficiary of Messi’s outstanding moment of the night. It was his own pass which sent the magician down the right with Gvardiol in pursuit.
Messi beat the Croat three times. Gvardiol fouled him twice. But the hand of a 6-foot, 1-inch defender on his shoulder was a minor inconvenience. Messi barged on by the dead-ball line, intuiting that Alvarez was there in his peripheral vision and laying on a pass that the striker eased home.
City’s outstanding £14 million signing from River Plate left the pitch as only the second Argentinian, after Maradona, to score two goals in a World Cup semi-final.
Messi stared out into the vast sea of blue and white that will assemble here again on Sunday, singing the Muchachos song the Argentina players have adopted as their own anthem. Its main line translates as: “Boys, we have our hopes up again.”
The little bull has made that so.
- A Daily Mail report