Metlife Stadium, 2016: Lionel Messi walked up to take his spot kick. His mates at the centre circle clutched onto each other’s shoulders. Their eyes had a hint of nervousness but what could go wrong? Argentina had to score but Messi never misses. The Barcelona superstar placed the ball on the spot and looked up at Claudio Bravo in goal. He took a couple of steps back. Bravo opened his arms in anticipation. The whistle went. Messi took a two-step run-up. Bravo dived the wrong way. Messi whipped the ball across with the instep of his left foot.
An hour later, Messi quit the Albiceleste.
Quito, 2017: A World Cup without Argentina? The football world isn’t strong enough to handle that. This year, it was a possibility. 40 seconds into the game, the possibility grew stronger. With a defense in disarray, Javier Mascherano looked listless. In a non-existent midfield, Angel di Maria, rudderless. Ecuador had no chance to qualify but wasn’t in a mood to let Argentina book a ticket to Russia. Argentina had to win. Everything had gone wrong for Jorge Sampaoli’s men. They looked knackered within the first 10 minutes. Where’s Messi? – the fans screamed in anguish.
On the 11th minute, the Messi-ah answered. First, he found space and then Di Maria. The Paris Saint-Germain midfielder ran into the box and squared the ball back to Messi. The Albiceleste captain wasn’t going to miss again. He wouldn’t let Argentina miss out either. After Metlife, Messi quit. At Quito, he didn’t. He knew he had to do it all by himself. So, he did it all by himself.
Quitter, loser, traitor – after that night at Metlife, Messi was greeted with the choicest of adjectives. The fans were hurt. They had lost three finals. Big ones. They had Lionel Messi, still. He wins everything for Barcelona, why can’t he win with us? – cried the blue and white faithful. He doesn’t want to play for us. He isn’t Diego.
Diego. Argentina wanted Messi to become their Diego. They were still in love with that five foot someone. He was long gone but they couldn’t let him go. With every failure, his shadow grew longer and the Argentine fans crept inside it for solace. His shadow has destroyed most. Ariel Ortega, Juan Roman Riquelme, Pablo Aimar, Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez — the list is endless. Every time a kid went past three defenders or did a rabona, Diego’s shadow engulfed him. Messi too tried hard to be that five foot someone. It didn’t work. It never works out that way. You can never replace a special one. You need to let go, move on and be in love again. They couldn’t, even after they found Messi. They lauded him but could never accept him. In 2016, they lost him.
But every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. Messi left Argentina as an ordinary kid plagued with illness. He showed his skills for Newell’s Old Boys but there was no magic. Argentina wasn’t but Barcelona were looking, closely.
The second act is called “The Turn”. The ill boy from Rosario started doing extraordinary things — winning the Champions League for fun, collecting Ballon d’Ors as a hobby. Argentina was looking but wasn’t really looking for a new hero. They were still searching for the old trick. There was a new messiah at their disposal but they didn’t really want to know. They were amazed at his achievements but wouldn’t clap yet. Because winning Ballon d’Ors wasn’t enough.
That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”. Argentina has no Diego anymore. Argentina has to let go because Argentina isn’t good enough. Argentina was reeling. Argentina was on the brink. Argentina had to win. Argentina had to play at 3000 feet above sea level.
“Do you have anything to say?” – the Albaceleste turned to their special one.
“Abracadabra”, answered Messi.