What Messi means to Argentina, and the World Cup

Doha, Qatar – It wasn’t the way Lionel Messi scored, but the way he seized the moment and made it his own in front of 88,000 people.

The Lusail Stadium must become a no-fly zone if Argentina plays there with Messi in the ranks.

The passengers on planes above the stadium, when Messi scored, would have felt the turbulence caused not by the foul air, but by the calm of a late November night ravaged with utter contempt by Argentine fans celebrating a Messi goal in a game you have to win.

The crowd had been loud all evening. But perhaps the small margin between Argentina’s survival and elimination kept the noise levels in check somewhat. Or maybe they saved their vote for Messi’s goal, confident that the maestro would deliver when it mattered and that everything would go according to plan.

Messi fans make a point in the stands [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

Two days ago, I compared low-flying F16s to 60,000 partying Brazilian fans and how the latter would arguably win in a contest to sound hardest.

Saturday night I was wrong.

Messi scored and the stadium exploded. If sound waves could turn into flames, pour scorn on everything around them—those were little bits of nothing by now—and set them on fire before they take over the space left behind, then now is the time.

In Brazil, it was 7-1 eight years ago in a semi-final. This year Argentina had clung on. The loss to Saudi Arabia not only upset them, but left them humiliated – and faced an early World Cup termination. In a group match.

Fans Of Messi Argentina
Staying out after the final whistle and celebrating the goal and victory [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

But Messi scored. And now Argentina was dreaming again: on the field, in the crowd, in Buenos Aires many thousands of miles away and in Rosario a few hours away where this little boy still lives in murals and memories of residents.

“How do you want me to answer that?” said an Argentina fan after the match when asked to describe whether he was relieved that the team survived or was impressed with Messi.

“It’s Messi. It’s football. Football was made so Messi could come and honor it. It’s Messi. I don’t think I can say much more. You saw what he did.”

And it wasn’t just the Argentines who were left in awe. A young Mexican supporter, draped in her team’s green, interrupted her father who had just said that “Messi’s performance was not nice”.

“Yes that’s right!” she exclaimed, then calmed down. “I got to see a Messi goal. I’m a Mexican supporter and I’ve seen a Messi goal in real life and not on TV. It was nice to see Messi score.”

“Now we support Argentina and Messi to beat Poland and help us reach the knockouts,” her father chuckled.

Fans Of Messi Argentina
It shows what that goal and the win meant to Messi’s fans [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

For Cristina, a match in Argentina and the opportunity to see Messi live in action was a dream come true. A goal from Messi, given what was at stake, was extra icing on the cake, one to cherish forever.

“I landed in Qatar yesterday [from the Philippines],” she said. I’ve always been a huge Messi fan. And oh my god I was so nervous, as they would have been eliminated if they lost. Not the result I would have wanted. But then I got what I came here for : a Messi goal!

“My life is complete,” she added, looking at her cousin Det, who admitted she was not a football fan, but had come to witness the culmination of years of construction work that she had witnessed during her six years inQatar.

Fans Of Messi Argentina
Bucket list done! in front of Cristina, right, after watching Messi score [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

“Qatar is not a now-or-never World Cup for Messi, it’s a postscript to a movie that should have ended in Russia,” Shubi Arun wrote on Al Jazeera earlier this month.

Diego Maradona is no more. For Argentina and football, it is Messi who carries the flame.

It’s now or never for him as he’s probably playing his last World Cup.

Before the game, Saudi and Mexican fans continued to taunt Messi, looking around and “checking” each other’s pockets outside the stadium, exclaiming, “Where is Messi? Where is Messi?”

The goal against Mexico does not make the top 10 goals of the tournament. But it will definitely be one of the talking points. Because it was Messi, he scored and Argentina survived.

Fans Of Messi Argentina
A football fan and a tattoo: this is what Messi is to his followers [Faras Ghani/Al Jazeera]

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