At some point late on a wild night in Lusail, Lionel Messi was asked what had happened out there. “A bit of everything,” he said. There had been four goals, eight penalties, 17 yellow cards and one red. In the end, there was only one winner, even if they had to win it twice. Maybe even three times. Or, to put it another way: as the Argentina goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez, departed the pitch, he did with a defiant look in a Dutch direction, shouting his expletive-rich message in English to make sure it wasn’t lost.
It was that kind of night and at that point it wasn’t over. “We suffered more than we should have done,” Messi said. “At 2-0, we had it under control, we shouldn’t have had to go to extra-time, let alone penalties.”
The Netherlands, though, had gone to Plan B, launching long, Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst sent on, got one back and then scored a superb free-kick to equalize on 101 minutes. And so now here they were on the spot, as if it wasn’t tense enough already.
This was what the Dutch wanted, the advantage apparently theirs, but Martínez had saved from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis. Enzo Fernández shot wide at 3-2, opening up the chance of another absurd shift when Luuk de Jong made it 3-3. Lautaro Martínez had the last shot, the opportunity to send them through, the whole thing distilled. “Ugly,” Lionel Scaloni called it. Fifa has since opened a disciplinary case against Argentina.
It’s a long, lonely walk from the halfway line to the penalty spot, or at least it’s supposed to be, but when Lautaro Martínez’s time came he had company. Asked where his thoughts had turned as he prepared to take the penalty that could carry Argentina into the World Cup semi-final, the striker, on as a sub, said: “Calmness and confidence”. Yeah, good luck with that. As he set off, four Dutch players followed him, led by Denzel Dumfries, and they were still surrounding him almost halfway there.
The assistant referee stepped in, sending them back, but there were words. De Jong, who had just scored his penalty had a word. The goalkeeper, Andries Noppert, had more of them. Although Martínez thumped his penalty into the net and from the halfway line, Argentina’s players began to sprint his way. When they set off, and for a while after as they ran, at least four – Leandro Paredes, Gonzalo Montiel, German Pezzella, Nicolás Otamendi – and probably more turned to the Dutch players and celebrated in their faces. Otamendi raised his hands by his ears, taunting. “I celebrated in their faces because on every penalty one of their players was saying things to us,” he said.
All of them raced to the left corner and Lautaro Martínez, except for Messi who ran for Emiliano Martínez, lying in a star shape on the grass in the other corner. “He’s a beast and today he responded again; we’re grateful,” the captain said. Soon, Dumfries was running in the same direction, trying to get at them. He had to be held back; not just calmed down but dragged out of there. It took three men.
Just another confrontation, just another celebration, and those two things kept clashing. There had been a ball booted into the Dutch bench and flying tackles. Messi accused Weghorst of coming on and provoking everyone. Martínez was not the first penalty taker followed across the field: Ángel Di María came to Fernández’s rescue.
You wouldn’t have seen it on TV but there was also a pitch invader. Like Dumfries, it needed a lot of men to get him under control. And in the middle of it the referee was “Mateu-Lahozing” again – and yes, that is a verb, or it should be.
“It’s not easy,” De Jong said. “But he seemed to blow very easily for Argentina.” Messi and Emiliano Martínez thought differently. Messi suggested it was possible sanctions that silenced him, while Martínez wasn’t afraid. “He was giving everything for them. He gave 10 minutes extra for no reason. He just wanted them to score. He’s useless.”
That was not all the goalkeeper said, adding: “Van Gaal said: ‘If we go to penalties we win.’ He should keep his mouth shut.”
Messi said so too in his way, standing there in front of the Dutch bench cupping his ears. Edgar Davids gazed back at him through dark glasses. The day before Louis van Gaal had suggested Messi doesn’t run much. “He talks about good football but just boots the ball long. I don’t like people talking before the game: that’s not part of football,” Messi said.
This was, though. “There were things out there that shouldn’t happen but, well, it’s a World Cup quarter-final,” Messi said.
By the time the players reappeared – and it was 3am when they did – they had all come round to that view, the battle done now. Asked if Argentina had been too aggressive, Nathan Aké said: “No, no, it shows how much they wanted to win the game; we wanted the same. That’s where the emotion comes in and the fight comes in, that’s just part of it, and we understand.”
The Manchester City player smiled, unable to answer why Messi hadn’t been booked for a clear handball and when it came to the final celebration conceded: “Maybe out of emotion, you do stuff – I don’t think you can be too critical .”
They had been at “1,000 revolutions,” Pezzella said. “It’s a World Cup, there’s a lot on the line, it’s hard. Everybody wants to win: the players on the bench, the staff. And you see this,” De Jong said.
If Messi had suggested these were things that shouldn’t happen, for all the moralising, it did help make it more of an event. It may also have been good for Argentina, a team forged in the fight, stronger the more they suffer. They had won that way, too. Messi interrupted a post-match interview to shout: “What you looking at fool.” People in the tunnel believe Weghorst was waiting to suggest swapping shirts and he could be heard saying he wanted to shake hands, but between the language barrier and the fact this had already gone too far, it didn’t turn out that way, Lautaro Martínez and Sergio Agüero among those stepping in. Lisandro Martínez ended it, eventually heading towards the dressing room, saying: “We’re more of a team.”