Lionel Messi had seen something: not much, but just enough to be everything. An hour had passed and Argentina had been unable to get through against Mexico when he approached and had a quiet word. According to his teammate’s calculations, he was approaching again within a minute. This time he ran, screaming, lost it, jumped into the arms of Di María, his shot had just flown into Mexico’s net. He had hit it from exactly where he said he would. This was, he admitted, a “great liberation”.
“We passed a difficult test,” said Messi. “While we relied on ourselves, on what we can do, at the moment of truth a lot of things go through your head and it can be difficult to isolate yourself from everything. But this group is ready. We have taken a very important step; now we have to take another one.
Di María was asked after the 2–0 win if he claimed the assist for Argentina’s goal pulling back from the brink. “What?!” he answered. The alchemy, he insisted, came from the Argentine captain and with a material more base than metal. “I gave him a turd, but he always finds a solution for everything,” he said. “It’s about the ball getting to him.” And Di María insisted Messi owed that too, although from the way he spoke and how it happened his role was certainly significant.
There’s a line Jose Luis Mendilibar came up with to describe the Argentina captain: he “parks” better than anyone else, says the former Eibar coach. He may look like he’s doing nothing, like he’s stopped, but while he may have stopped, he hasn’t stopped. Instead he is watching, calculating. This was one of those occasions.
“We had spoken a minute earlier [the goal]said Di Maria. “He said they went in deep, narrow [the area] and so space would appear before them, to try to give him there. I waited for that moment to appear and gave it to him. And he scored a great goal. I’m out of words. I’ve had the chance to play with the best player in the world at club level, and for 14 years with the national team, and for me Leo is everything.
“We planned this,” Di María continued at the end of a long, tiring night. “We knew the first 45 minutes would be very complicated. Mexico knew a draw could be OK because their last game is against Saudi Arabia and they could win there. We knew the second half would open up and it did.”
In the suspense of Lusail, it didn’t feel so certain. “In the first half we tried to do things too fast, too hasty, especially me,” said Rodrigo de Paul. “At half-time, the manager said to be patient, not to put pressure on ourselves, the goal would come. In the second half we had the patience that Leo and the manager made us very aware of.” Argentina had certainly improved, Messi became the starting point of many of their moves, and yet when he took that space and took aim after an hour, it was their first shot on target.
“We had played 36 games without losing and that couldn’t all be ruined by just one game [the defeat against Saudi Arabia] but at the same time it’s not easy,” said Messi. “You come here, play a great team like Mexico, and in a situation where you’re on edge, knowing that if you lose or even draw, the situation is very complicated. For some of our players it is only their second World Cup game.
“The first half was very exciting, very difficult to play. We did things too fast, we were under pressure, we didn’t find the spaces because Mexico closed off like never before – generally they come out to play, but today they closed off. We moved the ball back and forth, trying to find space, but it wasn’t easy.
“In the second half we found our football, we started to move, we started to find passes between the lines, that’s our strength. The goal came and that changes the situation. We had to defend the three points and luckily Enzo [Fernández] scored a wonderful goal.
“Hopefully next game we can be calmer and finally find our football, as we have been playing for a long time. We always try to attack our opponents, play to win, no matter who our opponents are and this victory gives the peace now knowing it’s in our hands, we could even win the group if we win [against Poland].
“We have to keep believing in it. The support and solidarity has been spectacular – we knew it would be. There were a lot of nerves and we were able to give victory to the people, who are also suffering a lot. This group has shown that it is ready to fight and we couldn’t throw it all away for one match, when we are all together we can do great things.”
De Paul took the opportunity to call on the remaining doubters to join the cause in what appeared to be a message to the home media. “Most people were always with us; I invite the few who weren’t to climb back on board,” the midfielder said a little emphatically.
“Now we can enjoy the World Cup. We haven’t done that for the past three days. We were going through it all in our minds, but today we got it done, we got out [trouble]. The fans identify with us, they put a lot of hope in us. On the day we have to leave this cup, we want the fans to think, ‘They had nothing left to give.’ We will give everything until we are empty.”