Qatar December 04, 2022: A devout Catholic, Lionel Messi tilted his head to the night sky in gratitude. It has become a familiar sight across every chapter of his luminous career. But here it felt adorned with extra layers of significance, his 789th goal, his first ever in the knockout phase of a World Cup, arriving in his 1,000th match as a senior professional. It was a priceless piece of history from a player seeking, yearning even, to sign off from this tournament in possession of the ultimate prize.
The pursuit is still alive, with his superbly opportunist strike setting up a victory that should have been straightforward but that was, thanks to the pluck of a tireless Australia, in the balance until the very last kick. Only a last-gasp clearance by Lisandro Martinez denied the Socceroos an astonishing equaliser, after Aziz Behich’s deflected shot pulled them back into a contest that looked to have been sealed by Julian Alcarez’s goal. In the end, it was the Argentina supporters, who never stopped chanting, beseeching for the final whistle.
It was quintessential Messi that on an evening when few team-mates came to the boil, he left his indelible mark on this match with minimal warning. For 35 minutes he had been all but invisible, quizzically sizing up opponents he had never expected to encounter. But with one lightning flourish, he seized the stage, angling a low strike through a thicket of Australian legs and peeling away into the corner to take the deafening acclaim.
We were over 8,000 miles from Buenos Aires, but the cacophony that the travelling fans created on a sultry night in Qatar would not have seemed out of place at Boca Juniors. The chants of “Messi, Messi” were overwhelming for Australian players who had never experienced an atmosphere this febrile.
The matches all across the pitch were lopsided: take Messi being bundled into touch by Aziz Behich of Dundee United, or Sevilla full-back Marcos Acuna being scythed down by Jackson Irvine, formerly of Ross County. Given the mismatch between Argentina’s galaxy of all-stars and a Socceroos line-up whose clubs were scattered everywhere from Middlesbrough to the Central Coast, it was a minor miracle that they resisted for as long as they did.
It was one of the great historical quirks that the green-and-gold had vanquished Argentina once before, 4-1 in Sydney on their first meeting in 1988. Diego Maradona was absent that day, prompting one travelling reporter to quip: “Maradona is half our team – and the other half, too.” The same verdict could apply to Messi’s significance to this side. Every time the ball fell within his orbit here, the air crackled with electricity. Every time he quickened his stride, Australia’s back four swarmed to shut him down.
“Park the ute”, you might call these tactics. It drew derision from Argentina fans, given that their early efforts at attack tended to fizzle out into risk-averse back-passes to goalkeeper Matt Ryan. But these Australians seldom purport to be anything other than what they are. As manager Graham Arnold put it: “I know the players who will die for the team and die for each other.” Theirs is a resilience that has brought their anointment at home as a golden generation.
But there is only so long any players can hold out with barely 20 per cent possession. For all their agricultural tackling, which ensured two quick first-half bookings, they were powerless to fend off Messi in full flight. Cutting in from the right, he worked out his options with faultless precision, threading his grubber of a shot through Harry Souttar’s legs and into the corner, beyond Ryan’s desperate dive.
Argentinians saluted their hero with a wall of sound. There are an estimated 90,000 of them in Qatar, and those inside the stadium sensed their stakes for their greatest ever players. The lead was only a single goal, but already for Australia the damage felt terminal. Souttar’s blocked header was the solitary effort they managed in a disjointed first half. How could they expect to mount a comeback with such a vast gulf in class? It was not a question that would detain them for long.
Cruelly, Ryan, such a pillar of strength for Australia in the group phase, was the fall guy for the decisive second goal. Trying to deal calmly with yet another back-pass, this time from Kye Rowlers, he miscued dismally. Unwisely opting for a casual dribble past Rodrigo De Paul, he failed to spot Alvarez rushing up on the blindside. The Manchester City striker pounced in a flash, nudging the ball away from Ryan and steering it on the turn into the gaping net.
Ryan looked as if he wanted the turf to swallow him whole. Australia’s energy, their sense of purpose, appeared depleted. Argentina were emboldened now, with Alvarez carving out ever more glaring holes in their defence. And yet there was, remarkably, an improbable final act to be rewritten. Out of nowhere, Australia snatched a goal, not that you could describe it as intentional. Behich’s cross was cleared only as far as Craig Goodwin, who let fly with a shot that was sailing yards wide – until, that is, it took the heaviest deflection off Enzo Fernandez into the far corner.
Surely, it was a mere consolation? Australia would have none of it, Behich embarking on a brilliant slaloming run, haring past four Argentina defenders to set up one last shot. It was on target, too, until a diving Lisandro Martinez somehow contrived to divert it over the goal. Martin, on the touchline, howled at the moon in agony.