Give it to Messi and Pray: Netherlands vs Argentina

Lionel Messi Argentina World Cup 2022 Qatar France
Art by Tushar Dey

Give it to Messi and pray. Now. Tomorrow. The day after. Tonight, especially tonight. Give it to him and pray. As you’ve done for the last 18 years, touching on two decades.

Give it to him and pray. When the lights are way too bright and dizzying and the pressure is off-putting. The weight of the jersey is suddenly too heavy. The swing of the boot faces unaccounted resistance.

Give it to him and pray. The clock is standing still, 90 minutes stretching on to infinity. Injury time has taken a life of its own. Give it to him and pray. In the middle of all trials and tribulations. Above conundrum, clamour, cacophony. An entire nation with its army of 40 million is hoping and believing. Dismissing fears, doubts, and concerns of ‘is this it?’ 

Rebelling by design, by both compulsion and choice that the story doesn’t end here. One minute of genius is all it takes to remain alive. 

That is why you give the ball to Messi and pray. In your own half, close to the centre-circle, on the flanks, 30 yards away from the opposition goal, from a spot-kick, but at the edge of the box is where the magic happens. 

An entire career spent threatening defenders in between the lines. Hovering in between the lines, all the time. Try to find him there. He has mastered the art of moving without really moving. Nobody in the world adds more value by standing still and seemingly ‘vanishing’ from the game than him. Pockets of space slowly start opening up because everyone else is in a state of persistent flux.

Give it to him and pray. The fouls are getting incessant and incendiary. Every single challenge is explosive. Every 50-50 ball contest has become a primal battle for survival. Give it to him and pray as adrenaline takes over. 

The opponents are no pushovers, they’re here for a reason. To defy history, to usher in a new era of glory, to further their ambitions and aspirations, to make everyone back home proud, to give their fans a new voice and reasons to sing louder, to send shockwaves around the football world, to provide it with a story for the ages, to claim to beat the best on the planet. 

Give it to him and pray. The spaces have suddenly disappeared, the middle of the park has become no man’s land. All quiet on this front.

Why are they insistent on pushing the midfielders to the wing and in the final third? Why does no one want to drop deep and take charge of possession from the defenders? How did this team go on a 36-game unbeaten run but suddenly can’t nail the fundamentals of a football side worth its salt in possession? How are they going to function symmetrically without a right winger in the absence of Angel Di Maria? Is the tactical self-destruction too great to be compensated?

Give it to him and pray. Evidently when nothing around is making sense and suffering is all that’s written on the wall. Suffering in possession, not finding partners for a pass. Suffering without it, failing to match the pace of the opposition wingers on afterburners or clearing the dangerous long balls into the box as the opponents are throwing the kitchen sink and then some more.

Give the ball to Messi and pray. Even on the brink of tragedy. Staring at the abyss in silence.

Argentina have been here before. Disaster and defeat have gone hand in hand with the latest iteration of its supposed golden generation. Despair, only despair haunting the Seleccion over the last two decades. A first World Cup final since 1990 ends in late heartbreak. Two back-to-back Copa finals against Chile in these years become Hitchcockian horror.

Wait for him and pray. The pain is too much and he doesn’t want to be there anymore. Four final defeats are enough for one lifetime, he says. There’s no joy with Argentina, only resignation and an endless cycle of coming close to finding salvation, but drifting far, straying wide.

Give it to him and pray. Because he inevitably returns. The love’s too strong to be bogged down. Kicking, screaming, harrying, hustling, and fighting, he single-handedly books Argentina’s flight to Russia. Without him there was no national side, they said, crying for him to come back. They were right.

Give it to him and pray. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. The glorious Maracana in Rio de Janeiro gleams and smiles on a midsummer night as chants of ‘Campeones! Campeones!’ braces its hallowed ground. Football’s favourite son finally completes his redemption arc and is launched into the air by his teammates. He finds peace. 

Argentina dust off the trophy cabinet and add silverware for the first time in 28 years. On the soil of their neighbours and old foes. Bragging rights and all that.

Lionel Messi Argentina 2022 World Cup Qatar Netherlands Quarter-final
Photo: Getty Images (CNN)

Perspective returns in the following dawn. The country starts accepting the failures before with greater clarity. Losing four finals is no longer the full stop at the end of a bitter anti-climactic saga it once was.

Give it to him and pray. The shine has suddenly come off. Saudi Arabia have played them out of the park. Mexico have made them look ordinary and Australia almost took affairs to extra time.

Give it to him and pray. The dressing room is a mess after the Saudi upset, the youngsters have lost their nerves. They need their leader to inspire them. They look to him and pray. ‘Every match is a final, our World Cup begins now,’ he says. They agree, they’re ready to fight for him to the death.

Give it to Messi and pray. Millions have tuned in, seeking miracle and marvel. Give it to him and pray. Diego is rallying and willing on from the heavens.

Believe. Give it to him and pray. Moment after moment, expectation leading to even more expectation. Because it’s not how the World Cup begins, but how it ends that everyone remembers. 

Give it to Messi and pray. Argentines spend their entire lives on the edge, teetering between two extremes as every emotion gets amplified. Defeat and dismay had suddenly dislodged the ground off their feet, but victory, oh, it has helped them regain their usual stride as they sing songs of glory and dance in front of their fans, dreaming of wanting to be world champions for the third time.

Give it to him and pray. The clock strikes 63:28 against Mexico. It’s still 0-0. There’s a minuscule space at the edge of the box for the first time in an eternity. He’s all alone. Angel Di Maria takes note. Giving it to him and praying.

Give it to Messi and pray. It’s 34:32 against Australia. He’s making a darting, incisive run to set things up off his own free kick. Alexis Mac Allister sees it and channels the ball into that zone. Nicolas Otamendi’s miscontrol comically lands the ball in his path.

Guillermo Ochoa is slightly off his line as he traps and takes aim. The Lusail Stadium collectively holds its breath. The Australian defence is a bundle of jangling nerves seeing his first touch as they rush in numbers to stop him. The only way towards goal is through the proverbial eye of the needle.

It’s all coming down to these singular moments in time. The difference between the champions and the vanquished are often decided in these moments.

Pray. Pray. Pray. 

Pray well. For the Messiah is benevolent and he inevitably answers.