Here we are then, only 9 days in, and such a wide spectrum of emotions already exhausted by the Argentines:
Expectation that La Selección would easily dispatch the World Cup debutants (pre-Iceland game)
Disbelief when they didn’t, as Messi’s crucial second-half penalty was saved (post-Iceland draw)
Optimism that the Iceland game was a blip; this time it would be different (pre-Croatia game)
Numbness after a hiding, and the dawning of a scarringly severe reality check (post-Croatia defeat)
God-fearing desperation, prayers and everything crossed for a Nigeria win (pre-Nigeria vs. Iceland game)
Deliverance – promises made to the almighty which must now be honoured (post-Nigeria win)
It speaks volumes that Clarín made an instant celebrity of Santiago Staiger, a hitherto ordinary resident of San Juan, who apparently foresaw how Group D would pan out in a dream. Not only did he ‘see’ the 3-0 defeat to Croatia, but also that Nigeria would beat Iceland and – the reader is told, with great excitement – subsequently Argentina would edge into the last 16 next Tuesday. A happy ending if ever there was one.
Someone with whom Santiago Staiger must share his newly-found column inches however is of course Leo Messi. How funny it is that the less he does, the more Messi is written about. The less he says, the more he is spoken about. There are apparently plenty of commonly termed ‘football men’ clambering to pick up that particular baton on his behalf too. Amongst them the Argentina legend Diego Simeone, who last night went off on a diatribe about the disarray of the national team. Never someone to leave a pot unstirred, he signed off by asking the rhetorical question, ‘who would you rather have on your team – Messi or Ronaldo?’
Meanwhile, said other person with whom Messi must share his galaxy – lightyears ahead of all the other mere human footballers – has scored each of his nation’s 4 goals and is on course for the tournament Golden Boot. Cristiano Ronaldo has even grown a strange new goatee that he gleefully strokes every time he scores. This is nothing to do with talk about the GOAT though, as he told us all, very unconvincingly.
To ease the pressure under which his close friend Messi seems to be crumbling, Sergio Aguero Tweeted that the prodigy simply had an off-day, after the Iceland draw. Then yesterday, when facing the media after the humbling from the Croats, Aguero stated even more succinctly that he himself had ‘bronca’ (a fiery Latino equivalent of mardiness) and duly stormed off soon after.
As well as intermittent flaps of on-field frustration and constantly cutting a figure of hopeless despair, Messi chose to miss a team bonding asado session last week. Indeed, it appears to be a leaderless camp. Something abundantly clear is that the manager, Sampaoli has little respect in the dressing room due to his insistence on wingbacks and a system that is not completely built around the world’s most naturally gifted footballer.
What next then?
The feeling here is perhaps best summarised as self-loathing, at the relief enjoyed earlier today when Nigeria beat Iceland. Although they got themselves into this mess, getting themselves out is not completely in Argentina’s hands now due to goal difference. In short though, better Iceland’s result on Tuesday and they will qualify. It’s far from doom and gloom therefore, however it is true that only Croatia or Nigeria can win the group.
In order to get through the group stage, Argentina will obviously need their talisman firing on all cylinders. ‘To be well is the most important.’ That’s what Messi tells us in an advert for a healthcare provider next to my bus stop, smiling and with mate in hand. He looks genuinely happy, certainly more comfortable than he has been whilst in Russia anyway. Yet now Captain Argentina must find a way to channel the pressure he is feeling, carrying the hopes and dreams of his fellow countrymen on his shoulders, into something positive on the pitch.
He must acknowledge and embrace that this responsibility comes with the territory of being so astronomically talented, inarguably one of the game’s greatest ever. Only then will he be truly well. We know he is a genius on the pitch, but now Argentina’s progress hangs by the loose thread that is Messi’s wisdom away from the action. If the proverb ‘To be wise is to take one’s own advice’ is true, then it is in this context that a nation must hold its breath in this his most challenging hour.