FIFA World Cup 2018: Lionel Messi goes missing on Argentina’s biggest night
Lionel Messi seemed to be leading a funeral procession as Argentina teammates and the coaching staff passed through the mixed zone of the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, some two hours after the soul-destroying 3-0 defeat to Croatia here on Thursday.
Not a word was spoken by Messi or most of his teammates to the 100-odd journalists waiting in the area. Argentina’s forlorn march away from the theatre where their worst nightmare was played out capped off a disastrous night that pushed the two-time world champions to the brink of elimination with the game against Nigeria left to play.
Croatia had Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic to run the engine room, Argentina had no one and it left Messi isolated on the pitch. That made Croatia’s task easier. It also meant that on one of Argentina’s biggest football nights, Messi would go missing.
It wasn’t until the 64th minute that Messi, who dragged Argentina to Russia and took them to being second-best in the world in Brazil, would have his first shot on goal. It was an attempt from close that was thwarted by his Barcelona teammate Rakitic.
Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said they hadn’t made any specific plan for Messi. “We had a plan for Argentina, not for him,” he told reporters in the mixed zone.
“We respect Messi because he is the greatest player in the world but he is also stoppable. We did it together today, defending as a team.”
Messi entered the pitch head bowed and was seen rubbing his forehead when the teams lined up for the national anthems. Even before the second half started, he looked like a man more world weary than one playing for the World Cup. Argentina began shakily and couldn’t recover from goalie Willy Caballero’s attempt to play out from the back that led to Ante Rebic’s swinging right-foot shot that put Croatia in front.
Largely anonymous before that, Messi flickered only briefly after it. “The reality of the squad clouds Messi’s brilliance. Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel,” Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli said in his post-match press conference.
Diego Maradona had arrived at the stadium minutes before the start. If one needed a reminder of his popularity, Argentine fans at the stadium gave one when the giant screen showed him. A loud roar filled the ground. As evening bled into night, you understood how desultory Argentina were just by looking at Maradona’s face.
Towards the end of the game, there was little to no reaction from the Argentina fans whenever Maradona appeared on the screen. A large portion of the stadium had been filled with fans from Argentina and they had ensured the atmosphere at the ground never dampened despite their team’s disintegration.
It wasn’t till Modric struck with a thunderous right-footer from long range that the Croatian section of fans could out-sing the Argentines. By the time Ivan Rakitic scored the third, Argentina’s 12th man had lost their voice. The humiliation was complete.
With one point from two games, Argentina’s fate isn’t in their hands anymore. Even a win against Nigeria may send them home early.