At the end, there was to be no parting gift, just two assists and no repeat of the suave, angelic goal against Nigeria in the group stages. Not even Lionel Messi, who shaped football in the modern age with his Messi-anic talents, was to be a saviour. In the dying minutes of the game, Argentina chased another goal to survive, but instead Nicolas Otamendi had a pop at Paul Pogba, a moment of madness emblematic for Argentina’s crazed World Cup.
After the final whistle, Messi, hands on hips, stared into the middle distance, with a je-m’en-fou expression, contemplating elimination. The World Cup had been all consuming and now the tournament had spat him out. The little magician had enough. The jumbotron was replaying the match’s highlights, almost to taunt and remind him of his own impotency. During the 90 minutes, Argentina went from deflation to elation and back to deflation again, but above all chaos had prevailed.
Jorge Sampaoli’s philosophy always incorporated a bit of organised chaos, fielding high-speed Marcelo Bielsa-esque teams, who press and attack without restraint. However, Argentina’s high defensive line with the ageing Otamendi and Gabriel Mercado was neither clever nor brave, but simply suicidal against France’s frontline, brimming with the breathtaking pace and precision of Kylian Mbappe. At the World Cup, Sampaoli, with little design, shed the idea of organised chaos. Emptiness and unfettered disorder was all that remained.
Humans — and the celestial Messi — tend to thrive on the premise that order somehow, at the end of it all, prevails. It’s the natural law of order; defying it brings long-term catastrophic consequences. Messi was tasked with bringing order to Sampaoli’s disorder, but Argentina were exposed in defence, outrun in midfield and blunt in attack. He drifted in and out of the game, isolated in his position as nominal striker. At times, he just sauntered. He tried to drop deeper to exert his influence, at times hovering close to the centre circle, but he couldn't prevent the obliteration; Argentina’s law of order had long disintegrated, in part, ironically, because of Messi.
The diminutive No 10 had been Argentina’s plan A, B and C. The approach had worked in the previous World Cup, but in Russia the Messi route was too predictable, reducing the game to a containment act for opponents. The absurd Messi-dependency turned ten other Argentina players into bow-tie servants for the princeling, but the idea of playing Messi in a roaming you-can-do-as-you-please role backfired, the cult of the star taken too far. Sampaoli sacrificed Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala on the Messi-anic altar. At the same time, Argentina’s attacking riches paralysed Sampaoli. He never set for a singular starting eleven. Thus Messi became the plan — a flawed one at that for in a team sport as particular as football not a single player, except for Diego Maradona, can rescue a faltering outfit.
During the tournament Messi had never been at the peak of his powers, further compromising Argentina. Messi never found a state of tranquility or serenity in Russia. He exited the tournament, never having scored in a World Cup knockout game, a stat he shares with the mercurial Cristiano Ronaldo, whose Portugal were eliminated by Uruguay, 2-1. In the end, every assessment of Messi must come back to Ronaldo and the eternal, hackneyed debate as to who outranks the other in the pantheon of the footballing Gods and GOATs.
The Peles, Maradonas and Beckenbauers — all deities for the skill and exuberance with which they played — didn’t simply excel at World Cups, but won it. In the olden days the World Cup was the ultimate benchmark, the pinnacle of the beautiful game, uniting elite players from across the globe. Today, the club game, a glitzy soap opera, has overtaken the international game. In the Champions League, Messi squares off with the divine, the great and the not-so great on a regular basis.
In the football universe, Messi need not prove anything, anymore. He delights audiences with his preposterous skill set, reminding us that, even at the zenith of achievement, football is a simple game — to be played, to be enjoyed and to deeply move. In the global conscience, however, Messi failed at four World Cups, the tournament that no longer represents elite football at its best, but has transmogrified into a commodified global spectacle of, at times, questionable quality, engrossing nations, cultures and every living organism in the cosmos. Thus, in the order of the all-time greats, he might just fall short.
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Updated Date: Jul 01, 2018 10:38:20 IST