“Vení, vení, cantá conmigo” (Come, come, sing with me), starts the most repeated chant in Saint Petersburg during the last couple of days. The Argentines, present in every corner of the city, spent hours humming, whistling and very often singing the short, catchy tune off the top of their lungs, almost as a good luck charm that should make Lionel Messi and his teammates click in their do-or-die match against Nigeria.
As the date of the match approached, Saint Petersburg progressively became a sky-blue and white tide of Argentinean passion, the colours omnipresent wherever one went. It must be mentioned that they have travelled a minimum of 13.000 km from Buenos Aires (far more if they live elsewhere in Argentina), and that despite the disappointing first couple of matches, the faith on their team was always there.
This scribe, who perhaps somewhat biasedly catalogues himself as a rational Real Madrid fan, has never rooted for Lionel Messi during his club exploits, and it’s easy to understand why. That does not mean that I’m blind to Messi’s obvious talents: above all, I enjoy football immensely, and Messi unquestionably is a gift from the gods if you like this sport. But at times it’s hard to separate club feelings from country allegiances, something quite evident when you count the remarkable amount of Barcelona shirts on sight last evening at the stunning Kreskovsi stadium.
However, the Argentineans’ obsession with football fascinates me, and Messi’s struggle to win a title with his country makes the whole subject irresistible. The contrast between his overwhelming performances with Barcelona and his uneven, restrained, almost apologetic behaviour when wearing blue and white has always been puzzling, but possibly never bigger than his terrible 90 minutes against Croatia five days ago.
Immune to pressure with Barcelona, Messi transforms into a much less threatening player when the stakes are high and the pressure mounts with his fellow countrymen. I have never seen a country live football the way Argentina does. Brazil, famous for their torcedores, their memorable celebrations and their unforgettable 1950 tragedy, is not even close in terms of passion, obsession, drama.
But it must be said that I don’t think that Argentina’s way is better; in fact, I believe it’s damaging for the team, for the supporters and especially for Messi. The level of pressure is unbearable, unhealthy, and that leads to performances such as the Croatia one. Any defeat becomes a major disappointment. And given that not winning a title is the most likely option when you join a 32-team tournament, most of them don’t realise that they live in a world, and follow a sport that will disappoint them more often than not.
This comparison has been overused, but it’s very effective to make the point: Argentina lives its football like Maradona does: excessive in victory and defeat, overacting, exaggerated, paradoxically demanding “huevos” (balls) over controlled, strategic, quality football. Indeed, Messi’s approach is different, and even though the country is in love with him, he’ll never reach the heights of the flawed Maradona in the heart of the average Argentinean, even if he wins this World Cup and scores 10 goals in the next four matches. Messi is not wired like most of his countrymen.
This excessive approach to football has its advantages for the team as well: it’s what took a rough estimate of 50.000 Argentineans to Saint Petersburg. Imagine what many of those fans have gone through to get there in terms of financial and personal effort. (By the way, this is a point that skipper Mascherano uses in every motivational pre-match speech).
The stadium felt like a brand new – insert here Monumental, Bombonera, etc – filled with flags of every imaginable region or football club in Argentina, packed with euphoric Argentineans singing “Vení, Vení” plus the handful of other national team chants they’ve been yelling for decades. It was a fantastic sight. Argentina were playing a home match in Russia.
The controversy over Sampaoli’s team selection – assuming he chose the line-up, which seems debatable –, feels secondary. For this third match, he or his players chose a more sensible starting eleven, but above anything else Ever Banega started. Nor this team neither Messi can afford to play without Banega, the only smart midfielder in the squad. Picking any other player over Banega is the victory of the “huevos” over the well-played football, and that is bad for Messi.
As the match started, Banega found Di Maria and Higuaín in less than three minutes, and got Messi involved more often than in any of the previous matches. Even Mascherano, the “huevos” icon par excellence, deferred to Banega very often during the match, and thus Argentina played a more composed, controlled football.
The Argentinean fans felt that their team was focused and looked the part, and got behind them big time. Chants non-stop to reach total ecstasy when Banega picked Messi with a pin-pointed pass, and the diminutive genius controlled the ball almost like a indoor football player and defeated the Nigerian goalie with his right foot. The stadium went nuts. The relief was tangible all around us.
Things seemed under control. Maradona did his show, the interval went by, but then Argentina left the dressing room looking a bit too comfy. Nigeria knew they had to get back into the match, and it was surprisingly easy for them to do so. Musa showed he could burn Mercado, , Otamendi and all 50.000 Argentineans at will if needed, Masche made a very silly penalty and Nigeria was back into it.
In a team with the level of pressure that Argentina felt yesterday, conceding like that was almost catastrophic. And it was one of those times in which being the home team was in fact counterproductive. The stadium felt the hit, saw the team disoriented, and grew silent.
The match was there for the taking for Nigeria, but they looked content with the draw, and did not punish the apparent Argentinean cracks. Masche is slow and participates much more than he should; both fullbacks are useless offensively and below average on defence; it’s hard to know what Enzo Perez was doing on the pitch, let alone the squad. And Di Maria’s gas only goes for 30 minutes, especially against such a physically gifted side as Nigeria.
It was a matter of feeding Musa in every single play and wrestling the Argentineans out of the match, but the Nigerians played it safe. A few minutes after the shock, Sampaoli started to move the bench and, again, regardless of who made the decisions – it seems safe to say that Messi had the final say in Aguero’s entry –, all of them looked right. Pavon agitated the right side, Meza didn’t embarrass himself and Aguero joined Higuain to keep both centrebacks busy while Rojo met Mercado’s cross with an emphatic volley.
Argentina’s winning goal was the irony of ironies. Mercado hadn’t moved forward well in the whole tournament. The fact that he put in a decent cross is flabbergasting in itself, but the left-footed, very low skilled Rojo scoring with his right foot such a difficult shot is simply unbelievable. You have the best player in world football to win a match, but you end up getting there thanks to your less talented duo.
This paradox only underlines something that is often forgotten in a culture of individual accolades. Football stars depend on their teammates much more than those of other sports. Messi has never been able to win matches by himself, even though at times he’s played so well that he’s given us that impression. To shine the way he does with Barcelona you need to retain possession for most of the match. You need to find Messi in the right spots. You need players who keep a high level of passing and movement, and those do not abound. You need someone to do the laundry while Messi walks around the pitch apparently uninterested for long spells of the match. And, more often than you think, you need someone else to step up when your star does not feel inspired. Yes, you need Mercados and Rojos, although it would also help if they were a bit more talented.
Argentina took a huge weight off their shoulders yesterday, not only because they made it to the next stage, but also because they found a line-up that can compete and get more out of their star. Of course, France’s forwards can drive Tagliafico and Mercado out of his profession in the next 90 minutes they play, but that is a different problem. For now, Argentina can look forward to another match, and enjoy another display of exaggerated team devotion from their supporters. Messi’s quest is still alive.