Qatar December 10, 2022: A night of high drama turned into an early morning of frenzied, taunting, ugly relief and with the beautiful dream still alive for Lionel Messi's Argentina.
It was 12.55am in a still packed Lusail Stadium, with swathes of baying blue and white praying for Lautaro Martinez to strike home the winning penalty and end the shootout. The striker did just that as Argentina defeated the Netherlands who had mounted the most improbable and extraordinary of comebacks through substitute Wout Weghorst – still a Burnley player – when it seemed they were destined to exit the tournament.
Weghorst’s second goal even came through a stunningly clever free-kick routine – which was his idea – but that was out of kilter with everything the Dutch had previously done.
It was feisty, downright dirty and with huge amounts of gamesmanship. Even the post-match interviews were aggressive with Messi snapping at the Dutch camp as he talked.
Prior to that it appeared that Messi had defined his own destiny with a brilliant assist and a second-half penalty, before Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal went route one by bringing on two giant strikers and even throwing captain Virgil van Dijk up front. The Dutch launched it. Van Gaal-ball was hoofball; 1980s Wimbledon-style.
If it was Lautaro Martinez who scored the decisive kick then it was another Martinez, the Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who was the hero as he superbly saved the first two penalties from the Dutch, including turning away Van Dijk’s effort as he started the shootout. After his last-minute block to deny Australia in the previous round, Martinez is becoming an increasingly vital figure in Argentina’s quest.
If they had lost, this would have been 35-year-old Messi’s last World Cup appearance – just think about that – and would have meant his career closing without winning this trophy. But he goes on and it is Luka Modric’s Croatia who Argentina will face back at this stadium on Tuesday.
Instead, it is the end for another football legend with Van Gaal departing. The 71-year-old is stepping down after this tournament and this is the second World Cup in which he has lost to Argentina on penalties after the 2014 semi-final in Brazil.