Lionel Messi directed the fans in Qatar's sky blue and white bouncy castle. But when he saw his cheering family with their three sons in the number 10 jersey, he became very quiet.
After the long euphoric minutes on the lawn, the proud dad looked at the smartphone of an Argentinian TV journalist with wide eyes and an ever-widening smile. "Great emotions", Messi only brought out at first: "I know how they experience it, how they suffer and how they are happy."
Messi gives them a lot of reason to be happy at this World Cup, his fifth, probably his last and so far his best. From the start to the end in the 2-1 win over Australia, he also thought of her, Messi emphasized after reaching the quarter-finals, also thanks to his first goal in a knockout round at a World Cup - he had all the other eight before that in group games in 2006 , 2014 and 2018 achieved. In 2010, Messi remained goalless.
Oranje team as a touchstone
But not only because of his knockout round goal premiere, this World Cup is developing into a Messi show - at least for the time being. Because the next opponent Netherlands in the quarter-finals is the first real touchstone for the title and a opponent with history for the South Americans. In 1978 they won the title on home soil by beating the Dutch in the final. In 2014 they reached the final on penalties against the Netherlands. And coach Lionel Scaloni, at 44 the youngest coach at this World Cup, knows colleague Louis van Gaal, at 71 the oldest, from their time together in the Spanish league.
Before starting the preparations for the atmospheric duel next Friday at the Lusail Stadium, the Argentinian coach allowed his players a day of rest. The Australians had given them a hard time just three days after their group final against Poland. "I don't think we deserved to suffer like that in the last few minutes," said Scaloni after the Australians came back through an own goal from Enzo Fernández and keeper Emiliano Martínez made a monster save in the final seconds to secure victory and the Argentine party saved at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium.
Argentina fans in ecstasy
Almost 90 percent of the almost 45,000 spectators wore sky blue and white that evening in Al-Rajjan. And almost all shirts wore the number 10. "The whole of Argentina would like to be here, but that's just not possible," said Messi. The melancholy and burden of some previous World Cup chapters in his career seems to have completely disappeared. "Danger: Messi is loose," wrote Spain's sports newspaper "As".
Three more wins and Messi would have entered a realm in his homeland that has probably yet to be explored. He has now overtaken Diego Maradona in the number of World Cup goals with his ninth goal, ahead of him is Gabriel Batistuta (10). Reaching the semi-finals would also pave the way for Lothar Matthäus to be replaced as the record player for the World Cup. Messi's 1000th competitive game on Saturday as a professional was his 23rd World Cup appearance. Only Miroslav Klose (24) and Matthäus (25) have more games.
Messi shouldn't have been interested in all the statistics that night, when strike partner Julián Álvarez scored the second goal. It was an evening full of emotions: In Buenos Aires, there was again partying in the streets. Especially in Rosario, Messi's home country. "Ritual and football religion," wrote the local newspaper "La Capital". "I wish everyone could experience what the players experience with the fans," said Scaloni. Knowing that an entire country is behind them is a boost like no other: "We need that."
And Messi needs his feel-good environment. At FC Barcelona he became a superstar. The fact that he had already compared the squad and team spirit with that of 2014 before this World Cup, when Argentina were only beaten by Germany in the final, says a lot. If the South Americans hadn't made that embarrassing opening slip against Saudi Arabia, they would have gone 40 games unbeaten. The fact that last year's Copa America winner recovered from the setback right at the beginning of the World Cup and survived the delicate first knockout round with a "Messi in an unnatural way" (infobae.com) speaks for a positive dynamic.
The fact that his boys, Thiago, Mateo and Ciro, are all so close at this World Cup with Mama Antonela Roccuzzo also turns a world star into a completely normal husband and father. "My sons now understand what a World Cup means and that brings me even more joy," said Messi. "It's great to see how they experience it." And it shouldn't be over by Friday.
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