The 2022 World Cup Cup is getting into the business end of the group stages. The goals continue to be great, the results are still unpredictable and the matches are tension-filled and very much fun. With so much happening every day, ESPN India attempts to pick out the one magical moment that defined the day’s action.
For day 11, we pick an inconsequential run that Lionel Messi made in Argentina’s 2-0 win over Poland. It didn’t end in a goal, or an assist. And yet this one mattered, because it reminded us of the essence of Messi.
A decade ago, on June 11, 2012, an Argentine journalist named Hernan Casciari wrote a rather interesting blog post titled ‘Messi is a dog‘. The premise was that Messi’s single-minded obsession with the football reminded him of his family’s old pet dog, who didn’t care about much, except a yellow dishwashing sponge. In Messi’s case, the ball. He wrote about how Messi, like his pet, was so lost in his obsession that nothing else around him mattered a jot. Not the context of the game, not the scoreline. All Messi ever wanted was to get the ball and run. And run. And run. Kick him down, and he’d get back up immediately… and run. Tug his shirt, and he’d brush you off… and run.
Thierry Henry once spoke about something similar. How at times in Barcelona training, Messi would run to the goalkeeper, demand the goal and just… go.
The Messi that Casciari wrote about, that Henry spoke about, is no longer the same.
Over the past decade, a scraggly beard has grown on his face, and his wavy hair has been chopped into a buzz cut. He’s no longer ‘el mudo‘, the mute one, who would sit in a corner of the dressing room quietly. He gives the kind of speeches kings used to before the start of wars. He falls down when he gets kicked and just sits there. He waves imaginary cards at faces. He picks fights. Off the field, he continues to carry the burden of a nation, and a world that can no longer separate team from individual. He is a Saudi-promoting, big-brand endorsing, commercial behemoth who is one half of football’s all-consuming debate and lives life under the 24*7 glare of the public.
On the field, he still creates space just by being himself – always attracting two or more markers, creating holes elsewhere – but so much else has changed. He may still walk around like a bored, fed up teenager when he doesn’t have the ball, but when he does get it becomes all about efficiency: a quick dribble here and an offload there, a first time pass to keep the ball moving or a more expansive sweep to put the ball in behind.
That single-minded obsession to just take it and run? Down the wing, through the middle, from his own half or at the edge of the opposition’s box? No longer there.
Sometimes, though, he does something that takes you back. In the 53rd minute of this pressure-cooker of a match against Poland, he did just something like that.
It starts off simply, non-threateningly. He gets the ball well inside his own half, just behind the farthest point of the centre circle. He receives it on the half-turn, as he almost always does before completing the turn to face the way of the Poland goal. Then sets off. Those little legs scampering so fast it becomes a cartoonish-blur. The Poles backtracking furiously, four in front of him, two behind him. The ball never leaves his side, tied to his boots as if it’s a part of him.
There’s no great trickery involved here, there never is when Messi’s running with the ball. No stepovers, no elasticos, no elaborate ball rolls. Where Messi goes, the ball goes, that’s it. As he nears the box, he slows down a touch, weaves a bit to his left and leaves one defender flat-footed. A sudden burst of acceleration then takes him past another. Into that famous shooting position of his, left foot cocked, defenders braced, keeper worried.
Then he shanks the ball. As it balloons wildly off target, almost in slow-motion, he bows his head, a resigned smile spreading on his face. ‘Ah, almost,’ it seems to say.
For a brief moment, we had had the old Messi back. A dog scampering after a yellow sponge, nothing else on his mind. Just as suddenly, we were brought back to the present, where Messi is old and makes mistakes and shanks shots at the end of lung-bursting runs because he no longer has the energy to remain balanced, to make that telling final connection.
It was an inconsequential moment in the larger picture of the game. It had no tangible impact on the scoreboard or the group table. There were other moments elsewhere during the day that did – Wahbi Khazri’s sensational solo effort that lit up a day of glorious failure for Tunisia. Mathew Leckie’s single-minded brilliance that took unassuming Australia to the knockouts. Luis Chavez’s goal-of-the-tournament contender against Saudi Arabia. There were more tournament-defining moments in the Argentina-Poland match itself: Alexis McAllister’s opener, Julian Alvarez’s superb second, a gloriously constructed goal that came at the end of 27 passes (two more than that famous Esteban Cambiasso goal vs Serbia in 2006). Even Wojciech Szczesny’s brilliant save off Messi’s penalty.
But there was something about this moment. Call it nostalgia, call it the romanticizing of legend. When Lionel Messi runs with the ball the way he did in that minute, it just seems right, even if it ends in nothing. Like the dog that got its sponge, it’s just a singular moment of pure happiness. And that’s the kind of thing, small and immaterial as it may seem to be, that has to be treasured.