It's been a big tournament for the No. 10. Colombia's James Rodriguez has had the entire world swooning over both his sexy goalscoring ways and faintly android-like face. Neymar's presence offered his country hope, then his absence inspired them to wrack and ruin. And Wayne Rooney scored his first-ever World Cup goal, which was nice.
Then there's Lionel Messi. Almost certainly the best player in the world. Likely one of the best of all time. Not exactly playing his finest football. Yet probably the most important player of the World Cup so far.
The idea of the player that single-handedly drags their team further in the World Cup than they deserve to go is a potent one. Garrincha for Brazil in 1962, Diego Maradona for Argentina in 1986, Zinedine Zidane (nearly, so nearly) in 2006 ... all took advantage of the stage the World Cup offers to rise above both their colleagues and their opponents. But while Messi has clearly been the difference for Argentina in an unusually quantifiable way, with winning individual goals against Bosnia & Herzegovina and Iran, the first two goals against Nigeria, and the pass to set up Angel di Maria for the winner against Switzerland, he's managed to do all of that without looking much like Lionel Messi at all.
That is to say: he's not tearing teams to pieces; he's not finding the corner of the net with every shot; he's not sliding through thickets of defenders like a snake through long grass. He even missed a one-on-one against Belgium, and while Thibaut Courtois was out quickly and spread well, it was always going to be a goal because it was Messi, except it didn't go in.
His relatively muted performances have, as it goes, been echoed and reflected by those around him. Argentina's progress has been flawless in one sense, in that they've won every game, but each has come by one goal and all (except maybe that against BiH) could have gone the other way. At times they've looked tactically disjointed in attack; at others defensively unsound. Of the three teams left in the competition, they're the only side not to have produced a performance that could be called anything stronger than acceptable.
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And yet they're winning, and they're into the semi-finals, and Messi -- this diet, vaguely underwhelming Messi -- has scored four, made one other, and could well be lifting the World Cup at the end of it all. They've not looked great, and he's not been his best, but he's still, on the evidence we've seen, the most dangerous player left in the tournament. This game needs winning, so he'll just clip the ball inside the post from twenty yards. Or dance past three people and poke it -- via a slight deflection, perhaps -- beyond the goalkeeper. Or put this freekick over that wall, or roll the ball neatly to just the right place in front of a colleague. There we go. Game sorted.
The ability to do any of that is rare. The ability to do that at the end of a long game in which nobody's played particularly well and everything's on the line is some aspect of genius. Maybe not the most spectacular kind, and certainly not the most thrilling he's capable of: he's not been Leo Messi, footballing typhoon. What he has been is clutch as hell, which may not be as exciting but is just as admirable in its own way. And if you're Dutch, just as scary.