Sport

Lionel Messi, Argentina’s pavement artist who sees shapes before others

The thing that made the goal was the touch; one of those touches where Lionel Messi doesn’t so much trap the ball or kill it but lets it come and nestle, falling asleep on his toe like a fond old cat.

There were still six more touches to go before the ball would be left spinning, with a kind of purr, in the back of Mat Ryan’s net. But it was the touch that set the clock running, as the ball was looped back out to Messi on the touchline from his own free-kick.

You could see straight away that Messi had felt that familiar surge of static, seen the numbers whirring, the spaces start to yawn. Footballers are often said to carry a picture in their head. Messi has a great whirring bank of air traffic controller’s screens up there, alternate visions of the future to scroll through and finesse.

The touch spun the ball out in front of him, enough to draw the closest Australian shirt into his arc. This was a mistake. Don’t run towards Messi. His dribbling is a kind of judo-throw effect these days, using his opponent’s movement to trampoline into space.

Messi sniped away. He had time now. Messi gets a kind of pre-screening of these things, sees the shapes before anyone else, like a pavement artist conjuring Notre-Dame out of four chalk lines. He laid the ball back to Alexis Mac Allister, then sped in a straight line towards the thing he knew would happen next.

Mac Allister laid the ball in to Nicolás Otamendi. His touch was clumsy, but Otamendi had felt things thing starting to happen too. He performed a lovely little backwards sway, like a man leaping clear of the spray from a passing lorry.

Messi took the ball and had time to take another step, to open his hips slightly as he ran, the movement hidden in his stride, but enough to ease the ball to Ryan’s right, into the far corner and out of his reach. The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium erupted into a barrelling wave of noise on three sides, that distinctly Argentinian football noise, a shout of recognition as well as joy.

Twenty minutes into the second half, with Argentina 2-0 up after Julián Álvarez’s delightful steal swivel and finish, Messi did something for fun, a kind of roll through the greatest hits. Taking the ball in the centre circle he just decided to keep running, conjuring the ghosts of the Camp Nou, that surging, mulletted miracle of snap and spring. He ran out of space, smiled, jogged back, as the Bin Ali took the chance to sing his name.

And this is the thing with Messi. Every game is now a kind of Russian roulette. Click the hammer. Is this it? That sense of jeopardy, the fear that this might be the last of Messi on this stage will now move on to the quarter-finals of Qatar 2022.

How far can Argentina take him in this thing? Here they held on at times, almost ran away at others. Australia were dogged, dragged the score back to 2-1 and will feel they showed the best of themselves. Argentina have their weaknesses. But they also have a sense of heat about them. They kept to the 4-3-3 from the Poland game here, which may just come to stand as a step change for this team.

At the last World Cup Argentina were subservient to Messi, a team constructed to serve their sun king, litter-bearers for the princeling in their midst. Messi became almost inert, the still centre of this imperial bureaucracy.

As a false 9 in this team he is simply a free agent, with three expert midfield rats behind, runners up front, and in the middle of this the orb, the seer, the floating brain.

The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium is a lightweight, fun, fizzy thing dumped down in the overflow carpark of the Mall of Qatar. It looks like a giant wedding cake decoration, or the world’s most imperious pop-up ice rink.

Mixing with the Argentinian fans here has been a fascinating contrast. In the middle of all these gleaming surfaces, here is something disorderly and ragged. Argentinian football isn’t just passionate or patriotic. It is devotional. And here the ground was packed with blue and white shirts, laced with those familiar songs, the warm wave of noise.

As the game kicked off Messi could be seen swinging his arms, loosening up, as though it had just occurred to him he was about to do some exercise. He walked for a bit. He took up a position miles in front of the rest of his team, the small, slouching, baggy shirted chimney sweep at the top of the tree.

Graham Arnold likes to make the occasion small, to reduce it to simple human possibilities, will, desire, taking the moment. He talks about the “Aussie DNA”, a scrap-happy, fight-in-the-dog kind of schtick. Australia did fight here, but Argentina had enough to resist. And they now roll on, three games from the summit.

Another striking aspect was the love at the end as Messi led the celebrations, the feeling of the moment being cherished and locked in. It hasn’t always been this way. No other footballer has been so exposed to the glare, so relentlessly seen, analysed, venerated, bathed in light. Another one down. But there may just be a few more spins of the chamber before this thing is done.