On Lionel Messi, a quiet, unassuming lad, the captain’s armband is like an adornment. One he wore temporarily on Tuesday night. One he will surely wear more regularly in future. “It is indeed very special to be captain. It was a pleasant surprise and experience,” said Messi, Man of the Match in Argentina’s 2-0 win in Group B against Greece here.
Some distance from this town in Limpopo province, where less than 6,00,000 people live, the Peter Mokaba Stadium resembles an open spaceship. For a man whose football skills seem out of this world, it was a fitting setting to be first-time captain.
“Messi-ah, how can a god play among men,” asked a banner on the giant screens at the stadium, throbbing with the full-throated effort of Argentine fans, their songs, flags and umbrellas. “We love you Messi,” said another at half-time.
Argentina hadn’t yet translated their superiority into goals. Sergio Aguero, one of the seven changes to the starting line-up made by coach Diego Maradona, broke early through the inside left channel and fired but Alexandros Tzovoras was playing like a Greek god in goal. He had also tipped over a 30-yard drive from Veron.
And Messi? Early on, he beat Konstantinos Katsouranis, beat Alexandros Tziolis before Sokratis Papastathopoulous --- the midfielder employed for special attention on the Argentina captain --- brought him down. “There was a man clinging to me for 90 minutes. The referee seemed to be on their side. They played dirty and the referee didn’t let us play football like we want,” Messi said. This was after his coach had criticised Ravshan Irmatov, the Uzbek allotted the whistle.
“Listen, it’s a matter of fair play. They fall above him, over him and bring him down. You can stop that by showing the red card and the yellow card. If I tell the fourth referee, he ignores me,” Maradona said.
Starting in the hole behind Diego Milito and Aguero, Messi moved up early in the second half exchanging positions with Maradona’s son-in-law. Soon after, Veron moved into the centre to make way for Angel di Maria as Maradona rung in the changes and Argentina showed how flexible they could be.
Messi and Aguero changed positions again but when Javier Pastore came on, he again moved up to be Milito’s partner. In between, there was a 30-yard free-kick saved by Tzorvas.
Argentina struck through Di Maria’s corner, Martin Demichelis banging home after the ball hit Milito’s hand --- this was
the 24th anniversary of Hand of God, after all --- before Messi went parallel to the goalline, skipped two challenges and pulled the trigger. Again, the goalie parried and like Gonzalo Higuain, Martin Palermo, 14 years older than Messi, was at hand to do the rest. “I always try to find the best possible solution for a colleague,” Messi said.
As Palermo raised his hands, Messi clapped. This was after he let the Boca veteran enjoy his moment under the lights, joining the celebrations last.
Another quality of a leader.