I wonder if Lionel Messi sometimes wishes he weren’t Argentine. If you’re a world class footballer from the South American nation, comparisons to the inimitable Diego Maradona are inescapable and sometimes it seems as if that’s exactly what weighs poor Leo down.
Throughout the club season, Messi had looked like the world class player that he is for Barcelona, scoring and assisting for fun. But as soon as he arrives to the national side, he casts a lonely shadow, bogged down by the pressure that he apparently owes his country a World Cup trophy simply because he is Argentine. Maradona did it singlehandedly in 1986, so why not Messi!
His last World Cup match was the unforgettable defeat to Germany in the 2014 final and he arrived in Russia knowing that this is his last chance to make amends and earn himself a winner’s medal. That arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick in his World Cup opener against Spain must not have helped Messi’s case at all.
Things might’ve taken a different turn against Iceland had Argentina built on Sergio Aguero’s opener and scored a second. Instead they let the Europeans equalize almost immediately and then struggled while the minnows defended with their lives. Messi was not offered an inch of space and he depended on his attack-minded teammates for an outlet.
But the decisive moment came in the 64th minute when a foul on Mezo earned Argentina a penalty. Messi stepped up to take it. Score and he would give his side the lead, miss and the pressure on him would only double. Yesterday, in just the third minute against Spain, Ronaldo won and then scored a penalty to give Portugal the lead. But Messi’s penalty was tame and savable and that’s exactly what Hannes Halldórsson did, diving to his right to deny Argentina.
Still 1-1 with less than half an hour to go, Iceland defended with renewed vigour, sensing that they could get at least one point from their first-ever World Cup match. Two-time World Cup winners Argentina meanwhile looked under pressure and lost the plot. Messi tried harder after the botched penalty, trying to find space and get a shot at goal. He did manage a few but they were as tame as the penalty and Iceland held on for a well-deserved point.
In the dying seconds of the match, Argentina won a free-kick about 30 yards from goal. Yesterday, from a similar distance, with just a minute to go, Ronaldo had unleashed an unstoppable free-kick into the top corner to earn Portugal a draw. However, there was no such last-gasp miracle from Messi.
In keeping with the script, he whipped his shot into the wall and the referee blew his whistle, ending it all square. As Iceland celebrated a historic triumph, Messi hung his head. As if it were even possible, the pressure on him seemed to have doubled.