Messi busi­ness: foot­ball ge­nius on show

The Witness - - FRONT PAGE -

BUENOS AIRES — A na­tion ex­ploded with re­lief after Lionel Messi sin­gle­hand­edly dragged his Ar­gentina team into next year’s World Cup fi­nals with a spell­bind­ing hat­trick in Quito early yes­ter­day (SA time).

“Messi is E.T. He’s from an­other planet. He’s not from this world,” Marco Mouras, a 28­year­old Brazil­ian said in a crowded Buenos Aires bar as Ar­gen­tini­ans around him went wild, beer and pizza spilling onto the floor.

Messi gave the world a mas­ter­class of what it would be miss­ing if he didn’t go to Rus­sia 2018, a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity when Ar­gentina went a goal down inside the first minute of a match they had to win.

A grave­yard si­lence de­scended on bars, restau­rants and homes when Ecuador’s Ro­mario Ibarra struck in the first minute of the game, cast­ing a pall of gloom across Ar­gentina as he scored.

It was proof for the doom­say­ers that this team was a lost cause. Ar­gen­tini­ans had suf­fered too much dur­ing a lack­lus­tre qual­i­fi­ca­tion se­ries and this was the last straw.

But Messi burst through the gloom to equalise and then soon scored again to give Ar­gentina the lead.

“2­1 was not enough. We couldn’t be calm,” said Lau­taro Gon­za­lez (35) cel­e­brat­ing after be­ing put through an emo­tional wringer by his national team.

Be­side him a dis­be­liev­ing Max­i­m­il­iano La­casa pro­claimed him­self a devo­tee of “Saint Messi. Thank God we have him.”

Pride in the shirt was re­stored when Messi com­pleted his hat­trick in the sec­ond half. It was time for Ar­gen­tini­ans at home to be­lieve again.

Pablo Ramos (34) could hardly take it in. The team is still a mis­fir­ing mess going to the World Cup, he said, “so it’s all suf­fer­ing”.

Even mu­sic yielded to Messi when Ir­ish rock­ers U2 de­layed their con­cert by al­most two hours to al­low fans in the La Plata sta­dium near Buenos Aires time to watch the match on gi­ant screens. When they fi­nally came on stage, they kicked off a gi­ant party.

With seem­ingly ev­ery­one crowded around ev­ery avail­able TV set, the streets of Buenos Aires were so empty it seemed like a cur­few.

Peo­ple wore the Ar­gen­tine shirt in the build­up, but not many. The Ar­gen­tine pub­lic had grown tired of be­liev­ing in vain. A win seemed a lit­tle too fan­ci­ful to most, ex­as­per­ated by a se­ries of un­der­whelm­ing per­for­mances by the national side.

Only a win would do in Quito, where Ar­gentina hadn’t won since 2001. The na­tion held its breath.

No­body here, or any­where else, wanted to con­tem­plate the un­think­able but very real prospect of Ar­gentina los­ing.

That would mean next year’s World Cup in Rus­sia would go ahead with­out Messi, ar­guably the world’s great­est player.

“It’s com­pli­cated, I want the team to be at the World Cup in Rus­sia, but only a mir­a­cle can save them. I’m going to pray for them,” said Maria Cor­doba, a 64­year­old op­ti­cian.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and now Ar­gentina will bask in the fact that the “Mes­siah” will lead them to the World Cup fi­nals.

Team coach Jorge Sam­paoli said he had told his play­ers: “Messi doesn’t owe the World Cup to Ar­gentina, foot­ball owes the World Cup to Messi.

“Messi is the best player in his­tory and I’m re­ally ex­cited to be able to be in a group, close to him.”

The main con­cerns of most Ar­gen­tini­ans is the econ­omy and the loss of pur­chas­ing power, but the tor­ments of the national team has rel­e­gated even that into the back­ground.

The na­tion yearns for a re­turn to the glory days of 1978 and 1986 when Ar­gentina won the World Cup.

Over to you, Mr Messi. — AFP.

PHOTO: AP

Ar­gentina’s master player Lionel Messi cel­e­brates after scor­ing against Ecuador dur­ing the 2018 World Cup qual­i­fy­ing match in Quito, Ecuador, early yes­ter­day (SA time). Messi’s hat­trick se­cured his coun­try a ticket to Rus­sia 2018.

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