The day Messi went to the heavens

QUITO. — Lionel Messi went up to the heavens and became a God, proclaimed sports daily Olé on Tuesday night after he braved the altitude of Quito to hit a stunning hat-trick to see off Ecuador 3-1 and drag Argentina kicking and screaming to World Cup 2018. All week Argentinians had endured endless memes poking fun at their plight, playing on the narrative that everyone else in the squad would deny Messi the World Cup that “football owed him”. Ahead of kick-off, coach Jorge Sampaoli challenged his players to match Messi’s performances.

“If we are at Messi’s level, the match will go very well,” he said. Once again, they were not and the match certainly didn’t start well, as Argentina’s endless defensive frailties saw them fall behind after just 37 seconds. Sampaoli shuffled his pack after Thursday’s goalless draw with Peru, switching to a back-three that would be marshalled by the dependable Javier Mascherano.

If Messi is Argentina’s talisman, his Barca colleague, El Jefecito (The Little Chief) is the heart of this generation. But he was so almost the villain, misjudging a high ball — perhaps due to the altitude — allowing Romario Ibarra to give the hosts the lead. Once again, in a qualification cycle that has seen them go through three coaches and three football federation presidents, Argentina were staring death in the face.

Ahead of last night’s matches, five teams were hunting what was, realistically, two automatic qualifying slots and a play-off with New Zealand. Argentina were fortunate that their fate was in their own hands but after less than a minute they were already looking at results elsewhere. Back in La Plata, concert organisers were looking at themselves, wondering whether the choice to delay a U2 gig and broadcast the match on a big screen to the waiting crowd might have been a terrible error in judgment. A World Cup without the world’s most gifted player was once more a real possibility.

On Tuesday morning, an opinion piece in La Nación pondered how Messi’s absence at the World Cup would be felt in Asia, Eastern Europe and FIFA’s coffers. Such is Messi’s pull, some locals wore Barca shirts to the stadium, with one Quito native holding a sign that said, “[Leo], today I realise a dream by seeing you play.” Diego Maradona, meanwhile, had taken to social media with a typically thinly-veiled ‘cryptic’ message insisting, “The national team means more than any one name.” In the early hours of this morning, however, Messi’s name was the only one on anyone’s lips.

“Having Messi is a bonus that can save you at any moment,” said 1978 World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti. “Football is about order but also adventure.” With the chips down, Messi embarked on perhaps his greatest performance in an Argentina shirt. Eleven minutes after his side had fallen behind, Messi swept in an equaliser.

Nine minutes after that, he pounced on a defensive error to fire into the roof of the net. Then, just after the hour-mark, he ignored a pass that would’ve put Angel Di Maria in on the goalkeeper to run at three defenders sand send a shot over Maximo Banguera to seal a sensational hat-trick. At full-time, Enzo Perez captured the relief as he broke down in front of the cameras.

“We suffered so much,” he wept. Argentina retreated to the changing rooms, grabbed their oxygen tanks, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. The security barriers hastily delivered to AFA headquarters would not be required after all. A Brazilian newspaper captured the reaction by cheekily photoshopping Messi’s head onto all 11 players in the team photo from Quito. Argentina have made it. Joining them were Uruguay and Colombia after the most dramatic final set of qualifers that frequently saw the table flipped and reversed. Uruguay were all but there already but Colombia came through a 1-1 draw in Peru to book their place.

Peru are on the verge of their first World Cup since 1982 after they sneaked a play-off place that would have been Paraguay’s had the latter not suffered a home defeat by Venezuela. The big casualties were Chile, who went down 3-0 to group-winners Brazil, conceding a late third after goalkeeper Claudio had ventured forward in search of a goal that would have brought them level with Peru on goal difference and goals scored, giving La Roja the play-off place on head-to-head.

For Chile, it’s the end of an era, a goodbye to a golden generation. It’s also a time to champion the qualifying process. While English football fans may view World Cup qualifying as the most labourious of chores, almost everywhere else in the world it has produced the most thrilling of spectacles this week. From a crazy night in Conmebol to Syria’s extraordinary nearly moment and USA’s shock elimination thanks to a stoppage-time winner, we were reminded of just how much we will lose when the tournament is expanded to 48 teams. — London Evening Standard.

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