BRASILIA, Brazil -- With one half of South America’s foremost sporting rivalry mired in self-doubt and remorse following the injury to talismanic striker Neymar, Brazil’s great soccer sparring partner Argentina, led by chief ringmaster Lionel Messi, is growing in strength.
If the host nation was feeling neurotic before Alejandro Sabella’s men dispatched Belgium with (a few late wobbles aside) the minimum of effort Saturday afternoon, the prospect of Messi thrusting the World Cup trophy into the Rio de Janeiro night sky on July 13th will have Brazilians everywhere booking extra sessions with their psychoanalysts and hiding sharp objects from view.
After ensuring their country’s first World Cup semifinal appearance in 24 years, Messi & Co. will care not a jot. Brazil’s noisy neighbors were out in force at the stately pleasure dome of the Estadio Mane Garrincha this afternoon, with an estimated 100,000 fans invading the city, and their crown prince did not disappoint them.
While he faded from view in the second half, in the first 45 minutes Messi was everywhere, putting on a mesmerizing, pyrotechnical show, scuttling, darting, turning, moving into space, juggling the ball and playing inch perfect passes into space or onto the toes of teammates.
His beetling scamper away from Vincent Kompany was the fire starter for Argentina’s eighth-minute goal. A quick pass found Angel di Maria in space, before the Robin to Messi’s Batman hit a deflected pass to Higuain. The Napoli striker’s volleyed finish flew crisply into the corner of Thibaut Courtois’ net for his first goal of this World Cup.
Messi’s best moment, however, came later in the half, just as the Brazilian fans were paying tribute to their fallen Hector with chants of “Neymar, Neymar.” Hovering on the edge of the box, for a few seconds the sight of Messi surrounded by a clutch of defenders turned the Mane Garrincha into the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City 28 years ago, bringing to mind the famous image of that other great modern Argentinian legend, Diego Maradona, his toe on the ball, six or seven Belgium players crowded around him, panic etched on their faces.
Messi flicked the ball up, controlled it, sidestepped a couple of challenges and then was hacked down by Fellaini. He bounced to his feet and smacked the ensuing free-kick just over the bar as the crowd, Argentinians, Belgians, and Brazilians alike, cooed in admiration.
Messi though, has ever been thus – at least when wearing a Barcelona shirt. For years his form for Argentina was underwhelming, before Sabella found a formation that would work, dovetailing him into a scintillating attacking partnership with Sergio Aguero.
That plan has gone awry at this World Cup, however, where even before Aguero’s injury against Nigeria the team was doing a fine impression of The Beach Boys, with Messi as maverick genius Brian Wilson and Higuain, Aguero and pals his able, if uninspiring, bandmates. Messi’s goals carried Argentina through its three group games, and it was his pass that set up di Maria for the extra-time clincher against Switzerland.
The little wizard’s 410 minutes of solitude came to an end today, with di Maria elegant and lively before going off with a worrying thigh injury, and Higuain suddenly in electrifying form up front. One second-half moment, when he skated free of the Belgian defense before crashing a shot off the top of the bar, was emblematic of the renewed confidence flowing through the striker’s veins.
The quarterfinals of this most surprising of World Cups have fallen into a familiar pattern, however, with the favorites scoring early before settling into safety first mode. It was a similar story here, as Argentina’s vivacity faded in the second half, although even while in second gear the team still looked brighter than Brazil had the day before when struggling through a painful second period against Colombia.
With the intensity dropping on the field, it was time for temperatures to rise in the stands, as the Argentinian fans boomed out their Brazil baiting, Creedence Clearwater Revival inspired World Cup anthem Decime que se siente – “Brazil, tell me how it feels, to have your daddy in your house…we’ll never forget how Diego dribbled past you…how Cani (Claudio Caniggia, who scored the goal that knocked Brazil out of the 1990 World Cup) killed you off…we’re going to see Messi…he’s going to bring us the Cup…Maradona is better than Pelé.” The Brazilians in the crowd responded with a rather duller chant of “pentacampeão” – (“We’ve won the World Cup five times”).
The din seemed to rouse Belgium from their slumbers, though this was an impotent show from a team that had treated Tim Howard’s goal like a coconut shy in a country fairground just a few days earlier. Apart from a thundering Fellaini header after an hour, it was only in the last 10 minutes that Belgium coach Marc Wilmot’s side really threatened, when Romelu Lukaku burst into the penalty area, then elected to play a pass across goal when a shot may have been the wiser option. The danger was cleared, and the Argentina goal was not troubled again.
Wilmots, while pleased with his side’s display, was not in a magnanimous mood after the game. “I wasn’t impressed by Argentina. They’re an ordinary team. Little things make difference at this level, so perhaps experience was a problem for us. But not ability. We can be proud.”
On the day when the other member of Argentina’s holy soccer trinity, 88-year-old Alfredo di Stefano, was taken to hospital after suffering a heart attack, Sabella was keen to stress the importance of his modern day equivalent.
“Scoring goals is not everything,” he said, in response to a journalist who had the temerity to suggest that today had not been Messi’s day. “Working with your teammates is just important. Every move he makes gives the team hope that something will happen. When Messi receives the ball he almost never loses it. He will take three defenders with him. It’s like finding water in the desert.”
The roar from the fans at the end and the players’ cavorting celebrations on the pitch showed how much this win meant to Argentina. Egged on by an age-old rivalry, those fans will say they want Brazil out of the World Cup as soon as possible, and will doubtlessly be cheering on Germany in Tuesday’s semifinal in Belo Horizonte. But in the secret place in their blue and white striped hearts, perhaps they are already dreaming of a final against the old enemy on July 13th, and of adding a few new verses to Decime que se siente.