Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
IN the early hours of yesterday, Lionel Messi chose a make-or-break battle to produce one of the greatest individual World Cup master-class for a television audience running into millions, if not billions, and among those watching the show from a distance was Zimbabwe international football star Khama Billiat.
The diminutive Argentine superstar single-handedly dragged his country from the grim possibility of the horror of a failed World Cup qualifying campaign, for the first time in almost half-a-century — and a possible humiliating end to an international career that has always flirted with disaster — to the beautiful adventure of a Russian Roulette next year.
Fittingly, the Messi Master-class had to be performed about 3 000 metres above sea level in Cuito, a capital city perched high in the Andes mountain range where its setting is only the second, in terms of height locations in world capitals to Bolivia’s La Paz, as if the angels of football wanted the entire globe to watch it from down here. Just days after images of Brazilians stars on oxygen, as they struggled to cope with the punishing conditions in La Paz after their drawn World Cup qualifier against Bolivia, flooded the internet, Argentina’s assignment in Quito, only 600 metres lower than the Bolivian capital, came with massive challenges where the harsh environment was as much a hurdle as their opponents.
Seven years ago, the Argentines had leaked half-a-dozen goals in a humiliating 1-6 thrashing in a 2010 World Cup qualifier in Bolivia and seven months ago, in their quest for a place in Russia 2018, they had crashed to a 0-2 defeat at the hands of the same opponents in La Paz. Argentina also had an appalling record against Ecuador, without Messi they had started their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign by losing 0-2 at home to the same opponents in Buenos Aires, had won just two of six World Cup qualifiers against the Ecuadorians and just once since the qualifying format was changed 21 years ago.
The Argentines last victory in Quito had come in 2001, with Hernan Crespo and Sebastian Veron scoring for them in a 2-0 win, when Messi was just a 14-year-old boy, with their other World Cup victory there coming way back in 1960. There was chaos in their squad, 42 players had been tried — and failed — to provide the spark and consistency needed in the 17 World Cup qualifiers leading to the Battle of Quito, including four different forwards in their last four matches who had all failed to score. Jorge Sampaoli was the third coach to take charge of this qualifying adventure. Messi had failed to score in each of the team’s last three World Cup qualifiers, which had ended in home draws against Peru and Venezuela and an away draw in Uruguay.
But big players are made for the big occasions and, with his country crying out for him to provide the leadership, and the world singing in their corner because of fears an Argentina absence would devalue the World Cup next year, Messi responded with a devastating show in Quito to drag his country to Russia.
‘’Yesterday’s hero was Salah, today’s hero is Messi,’’ Billiat, watching the game at his base in South Africa, quickly tweeted. The Salah he was referring to was Egyptian forward, Mohamed, whose two goals, including a winner in time added on in Alexandria on Sunday night over Congo-Brazzaville, powered the Pharaohs back to the World Cup finals for the first time in 27 years. On March 23, 2013, Billiat went toe-to-toe with Salah in a World Cup qualifier in the same Alexandria stadium for a place in Brazil 2014 and the Warriors were holding out to a 1-1 draw, courtesy of Knowledge Musona’s equaliser, when the Pharaohs were handed a penalty lifeline in the 88th minute which Mohammed Aboutrika converted for a 2-1 win.
Billiat played 81 minutes of that contest, before being replaced by Tafadzwa Rusike, while Musona played the entire 90 minutes. Three months later, on June 9, 2013 at the National Sports Stadium, Billiat was relegated to the bench in the reverse fixture, only to being introduced in the 46th minute, which Salah dominated by scoring a hat-trick for the Pharaohs in a 4-2 win for them while the consistent Musona was again on target for the Warriors. Four years later, Salah and his Pharaohs are going to the World Cup finals.
And it’s a measure of how much Billiat and company have been cursing their fate — being expelled from the qualifying battles of Russia 2018 for the sins of their leaders who failed to offset a $60 000 debt owed to former coach Valinhos — the Warriors star has been following all the action, including staying awake into the early hours of yesterday, to watch the Messi Master-class. The stages and the cause might be clearly different but for Billiat, and the scores of his Zimbabwean Twitter followers who joined the conversation, the Messi Master-class evoked memories — even on this was a far bigger platform — of that afternoon when their captain, Musona, single-handedly dragged his Warriors to an opening 2019 Nations Cup qualifying victory over Liberia in Harare in June this year. The Smiling Assassin responded to his nation’s desperate appeals for leadership by scoring all three goals for his country in a three-goal demolition of Liberia and, in the process, making history as the first Warriors skipper to score an AFCON hat-trick. Amid the universal shower of praise that has been ringing from across a world again charmed by Messimania, football writer, Miguel Delaney, writing for the British online publication, The Independent, probably hit the best tone.
‘’Divine intervention, a holy trinity of goals on a night when a special saviour offered redemption and deliverance, it’s simply impossible not to reach for old religious language, because it’s now so easy to make the argument that Leo Messi is the greatest of all time,’’ he wrote yesterday.
‘’Messi dragged his team to the World Cup on his own, or at least as much as any individual ever can in a team game. In doing so, the great man did not just save his country. He also ensured that the national team’s wretched performances beyond his individual striving did not drag down his legacy, did not deny him a place on football’s greatest stage while still on his greatest level.
‘’Not even Diego Maradona had to do this, in a team under-performing like this.
“This was the Hand of God in a different way and the way he did it was even more impressive than the bold bald fact that Messi scored a hat-trick to deliver his side to the World Cup.’’ The television commentator of that Messi Master-class also provided a fitting soundtrack.
“Argentina trailed after 38 seconds, but one of the greatest ever players will get another chance in a World Cup, not just a hat-trick but a hat-trick when his country and when those magnificent fans needed him most and he delivered,’’ he thundered.
“This is what the great, great players do, they choose their moment and they deliver. He is unbelievable, Lionel Messi saves Argentina. Three goals of such quality as well.
“Many felt if they go out tonight, it would be his final international match, but he has breathed life into Argentina and indeed into his own image, his own myth and his own story, Cristiano Ronaldo has grabbed a lot of headlines recently, Lionel Messi will surely grab his tonight.”
Even the music stopped to give way to this special performance, the show of one of the world’s biggest musical groups, Irish rockers U2, being delayed for two hours in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires, to give way for a nation — and a world — whose soul was being marinated by a performance rich in purity it carried its theatrical value in gold.
The football world today is breathing easily and it’s a pity our boys never got a chance to fight for that World Cup ticket and, just like their fans, the likes of Billiat were reduced to mere armchair viewers of the show.