This article titled “Argentina and Messi’s World Cup tilt is lost in translation against France” was written by Nick Ames at the Kazan Arena, for The Observer on Sunday 1st July 2018 00.04 Asia/Kolkata
As Argentina’s defenders punted the ball from net to centre circle for the third time, Lionel Messi gazed down with hands on hips and you wondered who he would be more tempted to curse.
Would a stray dark thought double down on the figure of Franco Armani, who had just let Kylian Mbappé’s shot through his legs to undo the work – and it had not all been good – that Argentina had put in so far? Perhaps a special place in hell would be reserved for Jorge Sampaoli for giving him such Atlas-like responsibility and styling a side that, behind their figurehead, appeared bereft from the get-go. Or maybe there would be harsh self‑flagellation, wondering exactly what he had been doing when, persuaded by Edgardo Bauza, he reversed his decision to retire from international football two years ago.
It had been an occasion that tantalised you, often at unexpected moments, with the idea that Messi might get to fight another day in an increasingly desperate-looking quest to lift the game’s biggest prize. During the national anthems the camera settled upon his face, so often inscrutable, and was that the hint of a smile? Kazan Arena was, at best estimate, 70% Argentina supporters and as they bounced to the strains of Himno Nacional Messi seemed genuinely amused. Perhaps the sight of four tribunes pulsating with Albiceleste on the edge of the Tatarstan steppe would alleviate all that pressure; perhaps an error‑strewn group stage had simply been the kind of illusion that once afflicted parched horseback raiders out in the grasslands.
In the end, the horror was simply confirmed. Earlier in the day many of those South American supporters had checked into tenements in the stadium’s hinterland, fumbling between languages with local property holders as they fulfilled Airbnb appointments. This World Cup has been a breakthrough moment for live use of Google Translate, certainly in Russia’s provincial cities, and Argentina were lost without a footballing equivalent. They are a team who seem set up to cope, to get by as best they can, until an individual moment changes everything and Messi was on a hiding to nothing from the start.
He began as a false 9 with Ángel Di María and Cristian Pavón either side of him; the thought was, presumably, that he could pull France’s defenders around while the wide men made hay in behind but, on the rare occasions that bore fruit, Argentina had nobody to attack their low crosses. Messi had one touch inside the France penalty area in the first half; the problem was that if he did not stitch things together nobody else would and, in a backhanded way, Di María’s spectacular equaliser underlined that if Argentina were to pull this off it would not be on account of a cunning plan falling into place.
The biggest disservice, though, was done by those charged with giving Messi the platform for another bail-out. Éver Banega’s passing range, showcased with the wondrous sand-wedged ball that Messi tamed so thrillingly against Nigeria, was supposed to be the key that released him but this time the midfielder miscontrolled a simple pass and Mbappé flew away to win France’s penalty.
In lukewarm pursuit was Javier Mascherano, spluttering earnestly like a man determined to let the children who had stolen his wallet know they were in for a hiding. It was a scene that repeated itself throughout the game and it is unfair to single out Mascherano given that none of Argentina’s back eight – nine if you count Federico Fazio who, as Mbappé’s second goal proved, was clearly not introduced at half-time for his speed – had the faintest notion of how to steady the ship.
When Messi took optimistic aim and, via Gabriel Mercado’s wafted boot, put Argentina ahead the notion of the world’s greatest player completing his own against-all-odds story briefly seemed to make sense. But Kazan’s mural painters, who worked overnight to hurriedly daub Messi’s likeness alongside an image of Cristiano Ronaldo that had appeared outside Argentina’s hotel, might be asked to get their mops and buckets out now. The last 16, we were warned while basking in the afterglow of such a rumbustious group stage, was where the fun stopped and the real stuff kicked in; that half-smile, though, was the only hint of levity Messi and Argentina have seen all month.
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