ST PETERSBURG — Lionel Messi (pictured) and Diego Maradona are worlds apart in time and temperament, but they were as one when spreading arms and turning eyes to a clear blue sky to absorb a moment of wonder.
Maradona was in the stands, wild-eyed, crossing his chest and making a ‘V’ with his arms before jabbering to the heavens (later, he underwent a blood-pressure test, so over-stimulated was he). Way below him on the pitch, Messi stopped to strike a similar pose and pause for contemplation.
Maradona looks lost in all sorts of ways. Messi was lost only in the context of Argentina’s dysfunctional campaign in Russia. A brilliant goal, in the 14th minute, changed all that.
Argentina are through, and football is spared the farewell to Messi as an international player — for now.
France present a stern test in Kazan on Saturday, but Messi looks regenerated for that battle. It was Marcos Rojo, a Manchester United bit-part player, who scored the decisive goal, four minutes from time, but Messi who set the tone.
Seconds after Maradona flashed both middle-fingers at someone in the audience, Messi was booked for time-wasting, as if to prove that he too has a demonic side.
This is greatness. One minute, you are a sad tale for the world to chew over, an idol heading out of World Cup football on a bum note, the next — see you in Kazan.
Remember Messi’s detachment in the Croatia game — him touching his face as if deeply troubled? St Petersburg, where many a great reputation has been tossed in a canal, or chopped off at the plinth, piled brutal pressure on a superstar whose team came here with one point from two matches and a revolt brewing.
This was a different Argentina — the real thing — and Messi was in no mood to leave the stage as a tragic figure. With almost a quarter of hour gone, Ever Banega, one of six changes from the Croatia game, clipped a long diagonal ball from near the half-way line, which Messi cushioned with his left thigh, tapped ahead as it dropped and then fired with his right-foot past Francis Uzoho, Nigeria’s goalkeeper.
St Petersburg had filled with Argentinians over the previous 24 hours, and now they released their sound blast, the stadium shaking with their relief. The Maradona complex will never escape Argentinian football while he is alive.
He is the renegade genius and constant measuring stick for Messi. So the camera cut straight to him, and caught El Diego in one of his, shall we say, eccentric moments. No-one in the crowd felt Messi’s goal with such religious fervour.
The 100th goal at this World Cup also allowed Messi to say he has scored on this stage as a teenager, in his 20s and now his 30s. Football has come to depend on him as an evergreen artist, a stayer of the sort Maradona could never hope to be. But in a city where darkness never falls in June, the lights were threatening to go out on Messi’s career in an Argentina shirt, in his 12th appearance, after 64 goals.
It goes without saying that Messi’s international record is no match for his sustained magnificence and trophy-farming at Barcelona. There, everything flows through him and the other players know how to exploit his talent.
With Argentina, his team-mates lack the same intuition — and sometimes the necessary talent to serve his needs. This game, though, had a different dynamic. Argentina’s honour was on the line. They were going through or going out, and Messi took control, not only with his goal but a pep talk to the team in the tunnel before the start of the second-half, which will have carried more authority than the manager Jorge Sampaoli’s half-time address.
Sampaoli will doubtless be given little credit for this win, because all the focus will be on the intensity shown by the players and Messi’s leadership.
At 31, Messi would surely have walked away from a side with an average age of 30 years and 190 days. A fairly average side, in parts, but one blessed to have the kind of player Maradona used to be before he became a zany cutaway shot for TV producers.
The real circus is Messi: a world of delights, on which the curtain failed to fall, however much Nigeria willed it. France, beware. He’s not finished yet