Lionel Messi had seen something: not much but just enough to be everything. An hour had gone and Argentina had been unable to find a way through against Mexico when he approached and had a quiet word. Within a minute, by his teammate’s calculations, he was approaching again. This time he was running, shouting, losing it, leaping into Di María’s arms, his shot having just flown into the Mexico net. He had hit it from exactly where he said he would. This was, he admitted, a “great liberation”.
“We have overcome a difficult test,” Messi said. “Although we trusted in ourselves, in what we can do, at the hour of truth lots of things go through your mind and it can be difficult to isolate yourself from everything. But this group is ready. We have taken a very important step; now we have to take another one.”
Di María was asked after the 2-0 victory whether he was claiming the assist for the goal that pulled Argentina back from the edge. “What?!” he replied. The alchemy, he insisted, came from Argentina’s captain, and with a material more basic than metal. “I threw him a turd, but he always finds solutions to everything,” he said. “What matters is that the ball got to him.” And Di María insisted that too was down to Messi – although from the way he talked through how it happened his role was certainly significant.
There is a line that José Luis Mendilibar came up with to describe the Argentina captain: he “parks” better than anyone, the former Eibar coach says. He can look as if he is not doing anything, as if he has stopped, but although he may have pulled over he has not stopped. Instead, he is watching, calculating. This was one of those occasions.
“We had spoken a minute before [the goal],” Di María said. “He said they were dropping deep, narrow, inside [the area] and so the space in front of them would appear, to try to give it to him there. I waited for that moment to appear and gave it to him. And he scored a tremendous goal. I don’t have words any more. I have had the chance to play with the best player in the world at club level, and for 14 years with the national team, and for me Leo is everything.
“We had planned this,” Di María continued at the end of a long, exhausting night. “We knew the first 45 minutes would be very complicated. Mexico knew a draw might be OK because their last game is against Saudi Arabia and they could get their win there. We knew the second half would open up, and that’s the way it was.”
In the tension of Lusail, it didn’t feel so certain. “In the first half we were trying to do things too fast, hastily, especially me,” Rodrigo de Paul said. “At half-time the manager said to be patient, not to put pressure on ourselves, the goal would come. In the second half we had the patience that Leo and the manager impressed upon us a lot.” Argentina had certainly improved, Messi becoming the starting point of many of their moves, and yet when he occupied that space and took aim after an hour it was their first shot on target.
“We had gone 36 games without losing and that couldn’t all be ruined because of just one game [the defeat against Saudi Arabia] but at the same time it’s not easy,” Messi said. “You come here, play a great team like Mexico, and in a situation when you’re on edge, knowing that if you lose or even draw the situation is very complicated. For some of our players it’s only their second World Cup game.
“The first half was very tense, very hard to play. We were doing things too quickly, pressured, we didn’t find the spaces because Mexico closed off like never before – generally they come out to play but today they closed up. We were moving the ball from side to side, trying to find space, but it wasn’t easy.
“In the second half we did find our football, we started to move, we started to find passes between the lines, which is our strength. The goal came and that changed the situation. We had to defend the three points and luckily Enzo [Fernández] scored a great goal.
“Hopefully we can be calmer in the next game and finally find our football, the way we have been playing for a long time. We always try to attack our opponents, play to win, no matter who our opponents are and this victory gives the tranquility now of knowing it’s in our hands. We could even win the group if we win [against Poland].
“We have to keep believing. The support and togetherness was spectacular – we knew it would be. There were lots of nerves and we were able to give a win to the people, who also suffered a lot. This group has shown that it is ready to fight and we could not throw it all away for one game. When we’re all together, we can do great things.”
De Paul took the opportunity to call for the remaining doubters to join the cause in what seemed like a message for the media back home. “The majority of people were always with us; I invite the few that weren’t to climb back on board,” the midfielder said, a little pointedly.
“Now we can start to enjoy the World Cup. These last three days we haven’t done so. We were going over it all in our minds, but today we have pulled it off, got out of [trouble]. The fans identify with us, they have a lot of hope placed on us. The day we have to leave this cup we want the fans to think: ‘They didn’t have any more left to give.’ We will give everything until we’re empty.”