Lionel Messi pulls Argentina out of a World Cup nightmare in 2-0 win over Mexico
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Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the Group C World Cup soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar on Saturday November 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Shalit)
LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi entered the cauldron at 21:53 and stared the storm in the eye at Lusail Stadium. It had been brewing for hours and days with Argentina here on the brink of World Cup elimination. It pelted him for an hour as Messi and his teammates seemed paralyzed by the pressure and Mexican noise. And then, after 63 minutes of horrendous football, he emerged from a crowded midfield to rouse his nation from looming despair.
Mexico did everything to stop him. Still, Messi shot past Guillermo Ochoa with a precise left-footed shot to break a block and win Argentina in a massive, crisis-avoiding 2-0 win.
His goal left tens of thousands of Argentinian fans in raptures, some in tears. It sent his team into second place in Group C after recovering from Saudi Arabia's shock four days earlier. It sent his teammates toward the flag at the far end, where he'd sprinted off to celebrate. One, Lisandro Martinez, collapsed to his knees, perhaps in thanksgiving to a divine being, perhaps in overwhelming relief.
"MEEEESSSSIIII," fans chanted. "MEEEESSSSIIIIII."
"Geeeenniioooo," they sang moments later. Genius.
Later they bowed to him as if he were a god. As Enzo Fernandez doubled the lead and claimed the win, some ripped off their shirts and twirled them around in the air. At the final whistle, teammates sought out Messi and wrapped him in a big, grateful group hug.
They – Argentina, the team, the nation, the international brand, the aura – had come to Qatar with the expectation of a longer stay. They came as mutual favourites, as South American champions, as winners of the Finalissima. They came on a 36-game unbeaten streak that spanned multiple showdowns with Brazil. And they came, buoyed by their 2021 Copa America triumph, without the unbearable pressure that had dogged Messi in previous tournaments.
And they started off with ease, waltzing around Saudi Arabia for half an hour at will. Then the nightmare began. The two Saudi gates. The almost missed. The frustration. The reverberation around the globe. The horror.
Reports and rumors painted a devastating dressing room picture. Confidence gave way to doubts. The shock gripped the country and the players alike. And the pressure returned.
Argentina's Enzo Fernandez, second from right, celebrates with teammate Lionel Messi (right) during the World Cup Group C soccer match between Argentina and Mexico at Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Saturday, November 26, 2022. (AP Photo/ Jorge Saenz)
They regrouped with their family at their Qatar University base in Doha. They arrived at Lusail on Saturday night with stoic faces and the occasional grin. But when they got onto the pitch to warm up 40 minutes before kick-off, they were certainly taken aback by the sheer scale of the event.
The tens of thousands of Argentines were already there to greet them. Very few seats actually needed. They got up and jumped, pounding their arms and singing loud song after loud song. Some had started hours before kick-off. They grew in number and volume. They let out a deafening roar as Messi's photo appeared on the big screens and his name blared over speakers.
The story goes on
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