When Lionel Messi came on as a 75th minute substitute for Maxi Rodrigues in Gelsenkirchen, Argentina had already run rings around Serbia and Montenegro. I was watching on television at the stadium media centre in Stuttgart where Netherlands were due to play Ivory Coast in another group C game of the 2006 World Cup. I had gone to Argentina’s first game in Hamburg but coach Jose Pekerman hadn’t given Messi any game time.
When Argentina were playing Mexico and won through Rodrigues’ wonder volley, Messi, long-haired, wearing No. 19 and cutting in from the right, had come on as another late substitute and played a bit part in the move that fetched the goal. Again, this was in Leipzig and I was in Munich watching Germany beat Switzerland. Argentina were knocked out by Germany in the next round and when that was happening in Munich, I was in Berlin getting ready for that evening’s game between Ukraine and Italy. Messi didn’t play that game much to the consternation of many Argentina fans. I remember people venting from Kolkata after the penalties meant another World Cup stayed away from Argentina.
Four years later, my most enduring Messi moment came when it all ended — rather, when they were upended by a young Germany team — in Cape Town. In the afternoon game, played one day after Brazil were sent home by Holland in Port Elizabeth, as Messi was coming off after a 0-4 rout at the Green Point Stadium, a journalist perched high up in the media tribune temporarily abandoned his notebook for a camera, grumbling how this genius didn’t deserve to be in a team of losers.
Messi’s role in that World Cup was to be the provider and he did that as well as he could. He found Carlos Tevez with a superb pass in the quarter-final and had earlier been denied by Manuel Neuer. Like in the earlier games, Messi had worked hard but the goals hadn’t come.
“Messi had an exceptional World Cup with me ... and no one said so. (Was it) because he didn’t score? He turned all the goalkeepers into stars,” said Diego Maradona, the Argentina coach in the 2010 World Cup. “I approached him and told him he’d have many World Cups to get revenge. I said it with all my heart. While the rest were thinking about our return (home) he was there, head bowed, crying.”
Messi nearly lived up to what Maradona had said four years later. By then, he had become Argentina’s captain, the journey beginning in Kolkata where an international friendly with Venezuela was held in September 2011. Playing in yellow boots and on the right, Messi set in process a partnership with Angel di Maria that ended on Sunday in New Jersey.
He also had the massive Yuba Bharati Krirangan chanting his name by the fifth minute. But unlike the Camp Nou or in Argentina’s home games, the crowd was mostly silent. A 63rd minute free-kick had the Kolkata stadium gasping about a goal he almost scored and four minutes later, it was from Messi’s corner-kick that central defender Nicolas Otamendi scored the match-winner.
Four months before that match in Kolkata, on the invitation of a television company, I was in Barcelona for the second-leg of the Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and the hosts. Seated between former Barcelona and Romania legends Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu and just behind the home team’s technical area on a rainy May evening, I saw controlled, non-violent hatred from nearly 100,000 for anything that began with an M and wasn’t Messi or Mascherano.
The match ended 1-1 but again, like my past encounters with the football’s little, gentle giant, Messi hadn’t done much. That is if you ignore his nutmegging Ricardo Carvalho to the kind of cheer that pierced the night sky. I saw how Barcelona were marketing the Messi — the store manager said his name was the most sought after on the 75 euros’ team shirts bought by fans; it used to be Johan Cruyff till then — but I hadn’t seen him score.
That changed in Brazil and how! It was almost like Messi was making up for not having scored in eight years at World Cups. At the Maracana, he jinked past Bosnia-Herzegovina players to score a wonder goal in Argentina’s opener watched by 74,738, most of them wearing the team’s white and blue stripes. From the Copacabana to the Ipanema, Rio’s famous beaches, and from metro stations that lead to the Maracana they fetched up singing with fervour that shook the city.
For the next two matches, Messi was man of the match. “Fortunately, he is Argentine,” said Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella after Messi’s curler had beaten Iran. The thing about that injury-time strike was that it showed that while most of Argentina, inside and outside the Estadio Minerao in Belo Horizonte, and neutrals had given up, Messi hadn’t.
“We were all there in front, trying to score and put Argentina in front. Soon after I shot the ball, I heard people screaming in joy and smiling and it was a wonderful moment,” said Messi.
With Pele in the stands, Messi produced a superb pass that decided the match against Switzerland and by dropping deep; he had disrupted Belgium’s game-plan. “Messi helped us breathe,” said Sabella after the quarter-final.
Going into the semi-final at Sao Paulo, Mascherano had said: “Leo has rescued us in a few matches but we can’t just rely on him. The team should be there to support him.” Messi was shackled by Holland’s defensive midfielders Nigel de Jong, Wesley Sneijder or Jordy Clasie.
In the final, again at the Maracana, Messi was shackled like any national team would but though he managed to break free once, his shot was narrowly off-target. As Mario Goetze became an unexpected hero, Messi slouched and ran his hand through his hair. Another one had slipped by.
“I think his place is assured there (among the greats) and was even before he came to the World Cup. He played an extraordinary World Cup and helped by his teammates was a fundamental factor in taking us forward,” said Sabella, sitting inside massive auditorium at the Maracana, after Argentina lost. You couldn’t argue with that.