Two hours earlier than kick-off, followers milled up and down Lusail Boulevard in a hubbub of heart-pumping, stomach-gripping pleasure. It is a large road full of palm timber and vibrant outlets and generic eating places, a themepark of a place, and this so-called ‘city of the future’ felt like a bizarre location for some soccer history. But right here they waited, exterior McDonald’s and Nando’s and Sainsbury’s, questioning what the evening had in retailer.
This was the place Argentina’s future can be determined; or quite Lionel Messi’s, for that was who they’d come to see. It was the one method to clarify why, past Argentina’s core of travelling supporters, hundreds of native followers had been right here sporting Argentina shirts and draped in Argentinian flags. Inside the enormous illuminated stadium, a group of younger Arabic males took their seats sporting conventional Keffiyeh headdress colored within the well-known blue and white stripes. Thousands of individuals had come probably not to see a World Cup semi-final, nor even to see a soccer match, as such. They’d come to see a second.
Messi has his personal gravitational pull, one which extends from the streets of Rosario to the tasteless boulevards of Lusail and much past. At one minute to 10pm in Doha, a posse of native volunteers rolled up the enormous centre-piece protecting the center portion of the pitch and lugged it up on to their shoulders. As they ready to march away, out of the blue their heads started to spin to the left, one after one other like dominos. There was Messi, so shut they may odor him, strolling to his mark for the beginning of the World Cup semi-final.
There is a completely different feeling watching Messi now to some other time in his profession. There is an urgency, an angst. Every contact carries extra weight than earlier than. Every match could possibly be his final. Here he attracted the whole lot – defenders, followers, cameras – besides the ball. The match lasted 100 minutes from the primary whistle to the final, and in between Messi solely had management of the ball for a complete of barely 60 seconds. Two seconds right here, 5 there, and every little spell despatched a surge of vitality pulsating by the stadium.
Yet even for the opposite 99 minutes, Messi was essentially the most fascinating sight, drawing the eyes. Heads flitted between him and the motion like a tennis match. A murmur rippled by the group not as a result of Croatia had a doubtlessly harmful set-piece however as a result of, 50 yards away on the midway line, Messi was bent double, clutching his hamstring and grimacing. Perhaps tonight wouldn’t be one of these nights for magic in spite of everything.
But then it got here. If there are occasions when this whole World Cup seems like Messi’s final try to finish the comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo as soon as and for all, then this objective was a reminder of what separates him from different footballers. The velocity of thought, the shut management, the undressing of a high-calibre defender, and at last the capability to serve others: Messi would be the solely participant in history who finds a method to rating 800 objectives and nonetheless look selfless.
He took off, shimmying in that immediately recognisable method earlier than dribbling in the direction of the field as Josko Gvardiol gave chase. His ft transfer the ball however in addition they transfer Gvardiol, frightening him into involuntary micro-reactions, twisting one of the world’s greatest younger defenders into existential disaster. The younger Messi would generally beat his man over again only for enjoyable; now it’s crucial when his marker’s legs are 15 years youthful.
Messi pirouetted across the again of Gvardiol and into the penalty space, the place he knew a defender leaves his confidence on the door. As he scuttled alongside the byline he handed an Argentinian flag bearing the face of Diego Maradona. He took a half-glance up, sufficient to map out a move with an invite to be swept dwelling first time, and Julian Alvarez obliged.
The Argentina followers sang and the noise resonated across the stadium. On the aspect the substitutes smiled and joined in, preparing to stream on to the pitch on the closing whistle. There was a sense of future about this group, they usually all felt it. Argentina have performed in 5 World Cup finals earlier than: in Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Rome and Rio de Janeiro. On Sunday they may return to this glorified airport terminal within the desert, the place the place Messi will attempt to cement his legacy.
Afterwards, Argentina’s gamers danced and sang on the pitch. They fashioned a huddle and for a transient second the gamers engulfed Messi, an increasing number of becoming a member of the rabble till he disappeared. And for the primary time all evening, no person might see him.