Aside from the 23 representatives that make up Brazil’s squad, no player carries more pressure on his shoulders during this World Cup than Argentina’s Lionel Messi.
The 26-year-old has won the Champions League three times, the FIFA Ballon d’Or three times and the Spanish league six times in his still-young career, yet there are many, especially in his home country, who believe he still needs an iconic World Cup if he is truly to be considered alongside the likes of Pele (1970) and compatriot Diego Maradona (1986) as the best to ever play the game.
Those players did not just perform brilliantly in those tournaments, of course; they also won them. That is the bar that has been set for Messi, with many asserting that a South American World Cup will be his best opportunity, if not his last, to clear it.
In order to do so, he and Argentina will have to finish their campaign where it started on Sunday evening, at Rio de Janeiro’s historic Maracana Stadium.
Messi often plays the role of both hero and villain in Argentina, a country he has brought so much reflected glory to, yet also one he left at the age of 13. In Brazil, however, he is the one and absolute villain—the player feared above all who will ruin their final dreams.
But having Messi in the Maracana was a great moment for football—a great, even legendary player finally gracing one of the sport’s most storied stages.
If he does indeed return on 13 July to face the hosts in the final, as many observers anticipate, then he can be confident he will be booed lustily. But on this occasion, he was granted the reception the moment deserved, cheered as he was by the estimated 50,000 Argentina fans who had made the short pilgrimage to support their side.
The crowd did its bit to make the occasion a memorable one. It is just a shame that the players struggled to hold up their end of the bargain. If this was a dress rehearsal in preparation for a future visit to the same stage, then Argentina and their star player inadvertently revealed that they still have a few more lines to practice, as they toiled to an eventual 2-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Take out the own goal they were gifted after barely three minutes, and this was a genuine test for the South Americans, one they often struggled to control as their less vaunted opponents pushed them to the final whistle.
“We knew it was going to be difficult as it was our first game,” Argentina midfielder Angel di Maria told reporters afterwards, “but we got the three points and that was the objective.”
Coach Alejandro Sabella started with a 5-3-2 formation few had expected to be employed before the tournament, leaving Gonzalo Higuain—who was reportedly not fully fit, per the Agence France-Presse (via Yahoo)—on the bench and playing Messi and Sergio Aguero in attack together, with three at the back and two wing-backs asked to push high up the touchlines.
It was a tactical system that did not work against the opponent’s well-drilled 4-2-3-1, although Sead Kolasinac’s inadvertent deflection past his own goalkeeper for the opening goal prevented that from immediately becoming clear.
As the minutes went on, it was revealed as an unfortunate exception, however, as Bosnia-Herzegovina shut down their opponents effectively and created opportunities of their own thanks primarily to the inventive play of Miralem Pjanic.
In contrast, Argentina, for all their brilliant attacking talents, looked disjointed and uninspired in their forays forward, with Messi and his supporting cast struggling to find time and space as passes frequently and frustratingly missed their mark.
At half-time, Sabella, accepting the mistakes of his system (a move for which he deserves no little praise), made two changes: bringing on Higuain and Fernando Gago for Maxi Rodriguez and Hugo Campagnaro, and switching to a narrow 4-3-3 layout that had been more commonly employed throughout qualifying.
The effect was not exactly immediate, as Messi, now playing behind Aguero and Higuain, flashed over a decent opportunity on the hour mark that seemed at the time to sum up his evening. But that moment underlined the fact that the Barcelona forward now had space to run into and team-mates ahead of him to pick out, and this change would prove the foundation to Argentina’s decisive second goal a few minutes later.
Messi, coming in from the right, jinked past two defenders in his inimitable style before firing a curling shot that found the back of the net via the aid of both a deflection and the inside of the post.
It was a moment of inspiration to relieve 60 minutes of tension, and as Messi roared with delight and ran towards the corner to celebrate with supporters, the significance of the goal was clear for all to see.
“In the first half we were too deep and that hampered our attack,” the forward later told Argentine television, per Goal.com. “The second goal was a relief for everybody and especially for me, because it was good to score.”
Two goals ahead and with their talisman in a better mood, Argentina then began to play the sort of football that had many tipping them as the most likely team to spoil Brazil’s party. Aguero and di Maria both grew in influence as they moved into the spaces around the Bosnia-Herzegovina defence, while Gago’s awareness at the base of midfield seemed to add a certain calm that had been missing in the first half.
Despite that, the Europeans did eventually break through, as substitute Vedad Ibisevic scored their first ever goal in a World Cup finals.
With six minutes remaining, that set up a somewhat tense finish but Argentina—despite a few scares—held on for the victory.
“They were two different halves,” Sabella told reporters. “In the first one I think we controlled the Bosnians well, but beyond that, we didn’t create the kind of depth that we managed in the second half.”
Those scares, however, arguably revealed more about Argentina’s longer-term prospects than anything that proceeded it. They will now surely roll over both Iran and Nigeria to progress as Group F winners, but more coherent sides would have locked the game down at 2-0 and clinched victory without fuss.
“Obviously we need to improve,” Sabella continued. “We failed in parts, in part because of my own mistakes.”
Tom Williams, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, speculated on some tactical changes Aguero might make going forward:
That Argentina were not quite able to take the sting out of the match indicates that they do have a weakness, that their defence remains open to be exploited and their enviable collection of forwards can be blunted.
That is not the death knell for their chances—fellow “favourites” Brazil were fortunate in their opener, while Spain were battered in theirs—but it does give rivals cause for encouragement.
“The game became difficult as we did not have control,” Aguero acknowledged to reporters. “Luck helped us today.”
Indeed, if anything, this World Cup has so far suggested that this truly could be anyone’s World Cup, with the presumptive favourites showing their flaws and those ranked just behind them (Italy, Colombia) making powerful statements of intent.
France joined the ranks of the latter on Sunday, putting in the most cohesive and accomplished team performance we have seen to date in beating Honduras 3-0, even as the Central Americans tried everything in their power to kick Didier Deschamps’ men off the pitch.
Messi did not get that treatment later the same evening, although he might come to expect it in the weeks and games ahead. The route back to where Argentina started is a long one, comprising six more games, and this opening victory will have done little to dispel the notion other sides will have had that stopping Messi remains the key to beating the Albiceleste.
If they return to the Maracana in just under a month, it is likely to be an entirely different experience—with even more pressure to contend with, but far less home support to propel forward.
But for now, they have a first victory and a first goal for the man who carries their hopes.
“The Maracana was great, I had no doubt it would be like that,” Messi said after the match. “We keep working towards the dream.”