Lionel Messi pulls Argentina out of a World Cup nightmare in 2-0 win over Mexico

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi strode into the cauldron at 9:53 p.m., and stared up into the eye of the Lusail storm. It had been brewing for hours and days with Argentina on the brink of World Cup elimination here. It pelted Messi for an hour as he and teammates seemed paralyzed by pressure and Mexican noise. And then, after 63 minutes of dreadful soccer, he emerged from a crowded midfield to lift his nation out of impending despair.

Mexico did everything to stop him. Messi, nonetheless, pelted a pinpoint left-footed shot past Guillermo Ochoa to break a deadlock and lift Argentina to a massive, crisis-averting 2-0 win.

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His goal sent tens of thousands of Argentine fans here into raptures, and some into tears. It sent his team into second place in Group C, having recovered from Saudi Arabia’s shock four days earlier. It sent his teammates flying toward the far corner flag, where he’d sprinted away to celebrate with his arms wide. It sent one, Lisandro Martinez, collapsing to his knees, perhaps to thank a divine being, perhaps in overwhelming relief.

“MEEEESSSSIIII,” the fans chanted. “MEEEESSSSIIIIII.”

“Geeeeenniioooo,” they sang a few moments later. Genius.

They later bowed to him as if he were a god. When Enzo Fernandez doubled the lead and clinched the victory, some whipped off their shirts and twirled them in the air. At the final whistle, teammates sought out Messi and enveloped him in one grand, grateful group hug.

“This brings us more calmness,” Messi said in Spanish, and in between relieved smiles, a few hours later.

He and Argentina — the team, the nation, the international brand, the aura — had come to Qatar expecting a lengthy stay. They came as joint favorites, as South American champions, as Finalissima winners. They arrived on a 36-game unbeaten streak that spanned multiple clashes with Brazil. And they came, buoyed by their 2021 Copa America triumph, without the unbearable pressure that had haunted Messi at previous international tournaments.

And they started with ease, waltzing through Saudi Arabia at will for a half-hour. Then the nightmare began. The two Saudi goals. The near misses. The frustration. The reverberations around the globe. The horror.

Reports and rumors painted a devastating locker-room picture. Confidence ceded headspace to doubts. Shock gripped the country and players alike. And the pressure returned.

Argentina's Enzo Fernandez, second from right, celebrates with his teammate Lionel Messi, right, during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
Argentina's Enzo Fernandez, second from right, celebrates with his teammate Lionel Messi, right, during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

“After the loss,” Messi admitted, “I was very anxious.”

He and the players regrouped with family at their Qatar University base in Doha. They came to Lusail on Saturday night with stoic faces and the occasional grin. But when they emerged onto the field for warmups, 40 minutes prior to kickoff, the impossible size of the occasion surely struck them.

The tens of thousands of Argentines were already there to greet them. Very few actually required seats. They stood, and bounded, and pulsed their arms, and sang song after vociferous song. Some had started hours before kickoff. They grew in numbers and volume. They roared an ear-splitting roar when Messi’s photo appeared on the big screens and his name boomed out over loudspeakers.

And the Mexican fans matched them, word for word of song, ounce for ounce of passion, decibel for decibel.

And the Mexican team, itself under pressure, rose to the occasion.

Mexico coach Tata Martino made lineup changes and sent out a striker-less 5-3-2, with double false-9s. It aggravated Argentina. The game, players would later say, was “uncomfortable.” But more than anything, the South American favorites seemed debilitated by the occasion, by a combination of the stakes and the constant din that completely overpowered even the referee’s whistle. They looked nervous. They played clumsily. In the opening exchanges, they offered no incisive movement or threat.

They seemed terrified of the mere possibility that any Mexican crusade into the attacking half, or even a minor mistake, could end their World Cup. They got sucked into playing extraordinarily ugly soccer. Mexico had made it ugly by design; and Argentina by accident. There were 16 fouls and zero shots on target from open play.

“The first half was very tense,” Messi later said. “We couldn't find spaces because Mexico closed up like never before.”

The repulsiveness silenced many of the Argentine fans, who’d been so intent on making a racket. But it emboldened the Mexican fans. Because they knew that a draw with the erstwhile Group C favorite would have suited them just fine.

Argentina, though, perked up when Messi won and stood over a free kick in a central area early in the second half. He floated it over the bar, but Argentina’s possession over the first 15 minutes after halftime suddenly felt patient and potent rather than stagnant.

Messi finally punctuated it with his moment of magic in the 64th minute. More than 80,000 people rose as one, and exclaimed. Tension broke and became ecstasy.

With four minutes remaining and tension returning, as Argentina tried to see out the win, Fernandez juked into the box and curled a beauty past Ochoa.

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Back in the safety of their locker room, with three points in tow, they burst into songs of their own. They climbed atop benches and even a central table, and pounded walls, then bounced with joy.

“We needed this euphoria,” Messi said at a news conference. The win, he said “was a weight off our shoulders, and we now have peace of mind.”

It put Argentina firmly into second place in Group C on goal differential, tied with Saudi Arabia on three points and behind Poland on four. The scenarios for the final day are complex. But one is simple: Argentina will advance, almost surely atop the group, if it beats Poland on Wednesday.

And thus, it seems, the four-day nightmare is over.