2022 World Cup. Lionel Messi, or the relentless march of time

If you have tears… save them at least until Tuesday [ce 13 décembre, l’Argentine affronte la Croatie en demi-finale de la Coupe du monde au Qatar]. These days, Lionel Messi puts on an almost intolerably poignant spectacle. There is this sport that is so dear to us, that we have always followed and commented on fervently, a sport that we take a thousand times too much to heart, and then there is Messi, the best we have seen evolve in this sport, every game of which today could be the last. But he won a new reprieve.

An allegory of human fragility

We can relativize. Those over 50 will remember. Messi won’t retire the instant he emerges from this World Cup, but it’s undeniably the theater closest to his heart. Add to it one or two Ligue 1 titles, even a Champions League title with Paris Saint-Germain, and it will hardly weigh in the posterity of Lionel Messi. Add a Mondial, and any criticism of it will vanish. In this World Cup, each of its matches is an allegory of the fleeting fragility of the human being and of its beauty, a metaphor for the implacable march of time.

How then can we be surprised at such constant tension among the Argentines? How can we be surprised that the desire is always so ardent? How can we be surprised by such a worried communion between players and supporters? There remains an eternal enigma: does this energy charged with emotion carry the Argentinians, or on the contrary does it suffocate them? How far can they feed on it? How many more times can they end a match emotionally drained, and get back up once more to fight again?

Years of scarcity

You always find patterns of repetition when you look for them. For Argentina, it’s not just about Messi, it’s about an entire era, the whole state of mind he embodies. It was in Qatar in 1995 that José Pékerman led Argentina to victory at the Under-20 World Cup, the first since 1979, and the first of an unprecedented series of five victories in seven competitions. .

It had nourished a hope, an expectation even: that these successes in series pave the way for others, in the flagship competitions this time – but between the Copa América 1993 and the Copa América 2021, Argentina won nothing . Only three players appearing in these haloed junior selections are still in the team today: Messi, winner in 2005, and Papu Gómez and Ángel Di María, crowned in 2007.

Pékerman was convinced that he was training not only players, but individuals, and exploiting a method that was much more holistic than purely footballing. His influence lives on. It was he, when he was coaching the Albiceleste, who selected Messi for his first World Cup, and the current coach, Lionel Scaloni, and two of his assistants, Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel, were already in the staff who, around de Pékerman, won the Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia in 1997.

A floating mind

It was in Qatar that the era of the new Argentine football really began, and the dream, twenty-seven years later, would be for Qatar to be its grand apotheosis.

But it would take an inspired Messi. He has always been a player who works at his own pace and, with age, his tendency to observe in order to assess the faults of the opposing team has become even more accentuated. Eight years ago, at the start of his reincarnation as a pragmatic player, Louis van Gaal [le sélectionneur néerlandais] had managed to neutralize Messi in the semi-final of the World Cup by placing Nigel de Jong in the marking of Messi. But Messi these days is harder to isolate, he’s a floating spirit on the periphery of the game waiting for the right moment. And wanting to catch a ghost is beyond the reach of humans.

It makes no sense to talk about his mediocre mileage stats on the pitch: he is a player apart, a player who can only function at a supremely slow tempo. Which certainly means that his teammates have to compensate for his almost total lack of defensive work, but it also means that his opponents have to adapt; he’s never where he should be, he’s rarely involved in offensives, but once he’s there, when nobody saw it coming, it’s usually to deal a fatal blow to the opposing team.

What happened when Messi won the ball after thirty-five minutes [lors du quart de finale contre les Pays-Bas, vendredi 9 décembre, remporté aux tirs au but par l’Argentine] ? Apparently nothing, at least for ordinary mortals. But a pause of a few seconds was enough to destabilize Nathan Aké and create an opening, which allowed Messi to make a pass, absurd in its conception and perfect in its execution. Before anyone even caught a glimpse of the start of action, Messi had found Nahuel Molina with a pass so perfectly timed that the right-back was almost forced to score.

Maradona’s Ghost

Despite the impressive Dutch giant Andries Noppert in goal, winning with a penalty would have been too mundane, and contrary to Argentinian panache. For the Albiceleste, in this World Cup there is only room for fever. Argentina could even have won easily, as Messi twice unlocked the situation against the Netherlands in the second half, but he couldn’t do anything against the clumsiness of his teammates.

To wonder what Messi would give with a better team is irrelevant. What Diego Maradona achieved with a team that was far from brilliant was his greatest triumph. And, to end on a high note this era that began in Doha twenty-seven years ago, Messi could well do the same.

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2022 World Cup. Lionel Messi, or the relentless march of time

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