Argentina, Lionel Messi and the inculpability of shared burden
As Rakitic broke on a counter in the 91st minute and prodded into the final third, even though his legs were almost bone-idle and he was cruising at 2nd gear, you could sniff an incoming goal from a mile away.
As the Croatian pats the ball inwards to get a shot away, Messi and Mascherano have caught up with him but they weren't directly in his path. It is here that the irremissible monkey trick unfolds. As the ball is parried to Kovacic by Caballero, Messi and Mascherano stop in their tracks and let Rakitic past them and into the box like dirty cops on border duty.
Messi transforms himself into a mere spectator as Mascherano digs his heels further into the sand and turns around to call for the offside flag. Giving them company on one side of the box is Mercado who looks like a rookie gangbanger who's just had the biggest existential crisis of his life after seeing his big bossmen pull off the most amoral whacking.
This was not an insignificant goal and Argentina's World Cup campaign may yet be far from over. This was a goal that would further complicate Argentina's tie with Nigeria. If it was going to be taxing earlier, now it was going to be rigorous. The Argentinians will have to break the last drop of sweat on their body to get a favourable result against the Nigerians.
And the sad thing for football is, we know that this Argentina team could fail to even make a case for themselves save let alone plug away.
No, it's not Jorge Sampaoli's questionable calls. The man's been in charge for as long as we were on probation in our first professional gigs. It's easy to call Messi out for not showing up. It's easy to call Mascherano out for not trying hard enough. All of that would be specious arguments.
The team does not need a 20 ft wall mirror to realize that the burden is shared. It's quite simply the chaotic crisis that Argentina have slowly descended into, reluctant yet unwilling to fight fate. The celestial aura has been pricked, nay, it has been impaled. The embodiment of footballing sorcery that Lionel Messi is had applied himself to the holes and plugged the leak. But the pressure is tissue-breaking intense and he's not that big a man.
Have you seen Cristiano Ronaldo when the teams are lined up before a match and the anthems are ringing out? If you have, then you have seen hunger. You've seen fate's premier villain. You've seen the puzzling excitement of going ballet dancing with adversity. Football does not need the unassuming protagonist.
It needs and deserves a pantomime villain.
Lionel Messi's demeanour does not inspire confidence. When Portugal concede a goal, Ronaldo flies off the handle, he screams at his teammates and walks away muttering curses under his breath. The moment the whistle blows again, he is off to make amends.
It's not that this is not what Messi usually does. It's not that this is not something Messi can't do. He just does not look up for it when he's wearing that majestic white and blue. Messi walks back with his head dropped, as though he's lost his job and received his eviction notice on the same day.
His team is hardly helping. They are confused. Nobody in this Argentina side seem to understand each other well enough. They are all so similar yet so different. Messi rags the La Liga every year. Higuain floats about and is currently in Italy. Sergio Aguero is in England. Mascherano plays in China. Di Maria plays in the Ligue 1 in France. Dybala doesn't play anyway, so why even bother?
Yes, you could say that about a lot of teams but there's seems to be a lack of comfort in the Argentine camp. There's too much razzmatazz around Messi. It has become their duty to find the man when they're going forward in attack. Yet, Messi was impossible to find against Croatia.
Argentina seems to have given up before the campaign even started. Such was the drama that was involved in their qualification that it would simply be beyond them to outdo it. It's almost like an acid trip that started mellow but peaked earlier than it should have.
Had this World Cup become too much about Lionel Messi? But if it did, could you blame anyone? The narrative has taken its course and it has inevitably isolated Messi. This time the weight on his shoulders is excessive and maybe even undue in what has become a collective quest of sorts with bystanders cheering and jeering as he strives to etch his name in folklore fabric as the greatest to have ever played the game.
But you can't make an argument for being the greatest of all time if you willingly stood two feet behind the goalscorer as though with laden legs and watched him take his sweet time to pour gasoline on your effigy.
This Argentina side seems to have lost track of the plot amidst all the buzz. But for a nation that is widely renowned as a footballing powerhouse, is it so easy to miss the point? In that case, what are Iceland plugging away for? Why are Morocco and Peru giving it everything they got to stick their ice axe on the cliff?
Argentina's performance was just not quite the done thing in World Cups. Their heroes are indifferent, their spears blunt.
Whether or not Argentina go on to qualify for the knockout stages, they have already played a game well worthy of seeing them cast away. When Leo Messi leaves, Argentina won't exactly lack a hero. But with him, they'll lose further hope.
A new blueprint has to be made and this time it needs to be holistic. It ought to be chock-full of red pins and should have half a dozen charts and not one reductive solar system with one star and 10 other planets.
Maybe, Lionel Messi has one more chance. He could set the world on fire with a legacy-defining performance against Nigeria. It's not like he hasn't done it before. That's why the football crank in me craves for a reboot.
So, let's give him the benefit of the doubt and wait for his one last shot at glory.