Kamal El Ghorayeb
Trailing to Ecuador inside 40 seconds on the last day of qualifiers, facing World Cup elimination, and playing away from home in a stadium situated 2,700 meters above sea level in Quito, Argentina were on the brink of missing out on the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1974 and awaiting the wrath of a nation near 44 million strong.
For most players, that’s enough to break their nerves into an early defeat. Lionel Andres Messi is not like most players. He’s not like any player: he’s a monster amongst men, a predator that strikes with the speed and efficiency of a Black Mamba and the ruthless aggression of a pride of ravenous lions. Sceptics need not look further than his masterclass against Ecuador on October 10.
Each and every one of Messi’s three goals that night were created by him: they weren’t created for him. He pulled them out of nowhere. His first goal came as the clock struck 12 minutes by way of a nifty 1-2 with the Robin to his Batman, Angel Di Maria. Messi had charged down the center of the pitch, left an Ecuadorian defender for dead, and played Di Maria through who, in turn, pulled it back for Messi to stab home.
Messi picked the ball out of the net and ran back to set it at center pitch so the opposition couldn’t waste any time. That sense of urgency acted like a switch. Suddenly, you could feel the Argentines morph from a team of 11 to an army of millions fighting tooth and nail to keep their dream alive; it was 1-1, GAME ON.
Eight minutes later that dream was turning into a reality as Messi picked up a misplaced pass from Di Maria, ghosted past the six Ecuadorians surrounding him, and rifled home his and Argentina’s second of the night.
It wasn’t until the 62nd minute that the dream felt like it was just a whistle away from materializing. Ecuador were on the constant offensive and taking the fight to the Argentines. Both sides knew that the extreme altitude and thin air would play into Ecuador’s favor, which is why after going ahead, Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli set the team up to absorb the Ecuadorian offensive and then counter attack.
At minute 62, that’s exactly what happened. Lucas Biglia cleared an attack that resulted in the ball landing at Messi’s feet. Thirty meters out, with two defenders facing him and one beckoning behind him, Messi charged towards goal, took on all three defenders, and sublimely lobbed the goalkeeper from the edge of the box. The thousands of Argentines who made the trip burst into a thunderous frenzy that was infectious to even those watching at home while the coaching staff and the players, led by Messi, ran towards each other in celebration.
Half an hour later, the referee blew his whistle, and once again, a resounding fever took over the stadium. The team, staff, and fans alike were all in euphoric celebration as arguably the greatest player of all time put on one of the most clutch performances that football has ever seen. As the commentator on the night exclaimed, “Messi saves Argentina!”