Summer 2014: A Messi Beginning

How can this be? When the 90 minutes of game time are ended, the Iran–Argentina match in the 2014 World Cup is locked in a nill–nill [zero–zero to Americans] tie, a result so shocking to futbol [that’s soccer in American] fans around the globe that it can be rightly considered one of the great upsets in the history of the pitch [field]. The very backbone of the Argentinean spirit (the very spine of the Andes) seems now to be crumbling in the direction of a coming landslide. In this pall, where the heads of great, proud athletes seem hung on hinges, the national team’s legendary prowess seems forgotten and forsaken.

The magic of Diego Maradona and others nearly his equal is nothing now. There is only this dread moment, where the inheritor of Maradona’s crown, Lionel Messi, has faded into the fabric of the match, defended so mightily that his near-holy name has scarcely garnered a mention. Cry now for him, for his mates, for yourselves, for your history, Argentina.

Though the 90 minutes have elapsed, the match is not over. Throughout the half, the referee has marked time on his watch when the clock had run but play was effectively stopped for injury or argument or substitution. At the 89th minute, the he declares four additional minutes of stoppage time. “Play on.”

As they have all too often, perhaps because they have been too often rewarded, the players look to Messi to save them from this humiliation, exhausted body language and pleading eyes beseech him: ‘This has all gone on too long. What are you waiting for? Forget the impossible, losing. This is Iran. We cannot walk off the pitch with a draw. Save us, Messi. Save us one more time.’

Messi displays little emotion, certainly neither anger or self-pity. It is hard to know what he is thinking. He returns the collective gaze of his brothers with his own, reminding them that, ‘We are not a one or two, or three-man team. We are eleven. I am just Messi, a striker, not a savior.’

Iran believes it can win. And why not? They’ve turned back every attack. They’ve so bottled up Messi he’s become an afterthought. Had the referee not choked on his whistle when he should have awarded Iran a penalty kick in the opening half, they might now be ahead.

The Iranian people, of course, were rooting for their national team to do the impossible, screaming to anyone who’d listen: ‘This is Iran; this is the real Iran and we are its people. We are its heart. We are Argentina’s heart attack.” Forget the impossible. They’d already done that for 90 minutes. Only the miraculous remained. Now the fans of other countries and all who had their reasons to root against Argentina pulled together for the final four minutes.

Rooting for Iran. Think of it. What a thrilling idea. Retrieving the country and its people from the Axis of Evil proclaimed by the ever-ignorant George Bush and maintained by the ever-fearful Barack Obama, then holding these fine and highly skilled young men in our hearts—applauding the rhythm of their teamwork and their stoutness in the face of greater talent—bearing witness to their accomplishments so far and to whatever now remained.

Stoppage time started and most people wondered would thunder come clapping near the end of his reign or would this be the game where the song remained the same.

Billy Preston had sung, and we had listened once:

“Nothing from nothing leaves nothing,
You gotta have somethin’, if you wanna be with me,
I’m not trying to be your hero, ‘cause that zero,
Is too cold for me.”

Twenty-one men watched a solitary gaucho silently saddle up for one more mission. Did he dare wonder if his magic had already left the pitch? Who could know? Did a twinkle in his eye yet remain to light his way? Who could see? He was of course, like the rest of them, just a man—an exhausted, frustrated man, unlifted by the work of his brothers. He was one of us but more than that as well. Who was he at this moment—some rustler stealing hope in the dead of night, a polo master with one goal always in sight, or just a very special and well-traveled troubadour for the beautiful game?

He just did what he did, and you or I or anyone could label it later in every which way, none of them sufficient, but Messi by then would be on to something else.

To the play. Ten of his fellows sought to do what they’d done all match—get him the ball in position to work the Messi magic, and eleven Iranians sought to do what they’d done so brilliantly as well: keep him outside and deny deny deny.

In less than a minute, there he was with the ball on his foot, still outside the 18-yard box, confronted by three defenders who blocked his way forward toward the net. One defender blocked him while the others fell back a bit to cut off a passing or shooting angle. If other Argentines were maneuvering into the box to accept a pass, they were invisible to us. We saw only Messi.

With forward movement denied, Messi dribbled left on the horizontal as one and then another Iranian mirrored him. What he was thinking? Nothing, no one, was open. But as he moved a little farther along the horizontal, Messi gained a few inches on the last defender, but there was little to see and nothing to write home about.

And then it was over.

Just like that. Even the players looked around at one another as if to ask: What happened? What did he do?

What he did was plant his right foot those few free inches beyond the Iranian, who was quickly closing that tiny space, then rotate his hips and bring his left leg around with his foot hitting the ball just firmly enough to rise outside and past the outstretched defenders and just enough off center to put a kind of screwball spin on it, so that the ball curved just inside the post and just above the hands of Iran’s frantic, horrified goalie.

That was Messi. That is Messi. And so at least for now, Argentina can keep its Andes and its pride and its legend. For now.

Like Billy Preston said, “I believe you gotta put something into it if you wanna get something out of it.”