The third goal was just Lionel Messi showing off. After receiving a cleared ball in the attacking third with so much space that it felt like the Ecuador defense was performing a play on how not to defend him, Messi drove forward, angled left before going into the box, and clipped the ball over the badly positioned goalkeeper as he was falling down.
¡TRIPLETE DE #Messi ! la pulga da la cara por su selección que ahora vence 1-3 a @FEFecuador y Argentina pone un pie en Rusia. pic.twitter.com/LYNsC5VoIX— beIN SPORTS Español (@ESbeINSPORTS) October 11, 2017
That goal was a perfect exclamation mark on a performance that took Argentina from the verge of embarrassment to a 3-1 win over Ecuador and automatic qualification for the World Cup. It also re-established the greatness of Messi before the old criticisms could bury him for the next four years.
And the stage was set for greatness, in the high altitudes of Ecuador. Argentina, on the verge of elimination after failing to win and struggling to score in their last few matches, had its back against the ropes. In the background, Argentina’s three consecutive losses in major finals, and the fact that 2018 will probably be Messi’s last World Cup — at least at the top of his game.
Less than a minute into the game, Argentina conceded. It was a silly goal that came from a long ball that should have been routinely headed away, but instead, two Ecuadorian forwards played head tennis between the Argentine defense before putting it beyond Sergio Romero. The worst start happened and it threatened to break the team’s already fragile confidence.
Except Messi wouldn’t let his team fall apart, so he had to do something even he hadn’t done before to save Argentina.
He drove the team forward. He created chances for Angel Di Maria, and when his teammate wasted those, he dismissed the tendency to cater to others and did it himself. Ten minutes after the opening goal, he gave the ball to Di Maria on the left side of the box, made a run beyond his nearest defender and equalized the game as he slid the ball under the goalkeeper when the return pass came.
Gol, Gol, Gooool, @TeamMessi marca en el minuto 12' que le devuelve la vida a la @Argentina. pic.twitter.com/5a1hbzVfEv— beIN SPORTS Español (@ESbeINSPORTS) October 10, 2017
Eight minutes after his first goal, he scored a second. He pounced on a defender’s mistake in trying to pass out the back rather than clear a would-be through ball and rifled the ball into the top corner of the near post. The goalkeeper barely had time to react to the fierceness of the shot.
¡GOLAZOOOO¡ @TeamMessi lo vuelve a hacer y ahora pone a ganar a @Argentina en solo 20 minutos de partido. pic.twitter.com/FMBg2n9705— beIN SPORTS Español (@ESbeINSPORTS) October 10, 2017
With the cliched deadly 2-1 lead, Argentina relaxed and invited Ecuador to ruin their night. The game opened up and it seemed even the Argentine players felt the anxiety that this would end badly for them. That they would find a way to mess it all up.
Again, Messi allayed those fears and scored that beautiful third goal in the 62nd minute to put the game beyond question. It was his first ever hattrick and his 20th goal in South America World Cup qualifiers, making him the all-time leader. He not only had to prove his greatness, he had to be better than he’s ever been before for Argentina. And he did so in wonderful fashion.
Sports are so much better at judging excellence than the real world. In the regular world, we have this tendency to see greatness as a static thing. You’re a genius or you’re not. When you’re a genius, everything you do falls under that context, failure is an exception. When you’re not great, everything that you do that would be considered the work of a genius is seen as an exception to your natural ability.
In the sports world, genius is an active thing. You’re constantly proving yourself against your talent, what people feel you’re capable of, and what you have achieved so far. One year Messi is the best player in the world, the next, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Then more records are broken, trophies are won and it flips again. Each year must be as good or better than the last.
Messi has shown, with his body of work over the last decade or so, that he’s arguably the best player of all time. Yet recently, at least for Argentina, the conversation around him had regressed to pre-World Cup 2014.
After those three finals losses — World Cup, Copa America Centenario, Copa America — he retired for a moment. When he came back, he played well but Argentina as a team did not. Instead of living up to their potential, the team got further away from qualifying for the World Cup. Because of the superstar syndrome, our tendency to attribute the failures of a team to its star, the blame fell on Messi again. Which wasn’t too wrong, as being the most talented and decorated player on the field at all times comes with the responsibility of having to be the difference maker. That’s the burden of of greatness, it’s overbearing and unfair for the most part. It’s a very lonely thing.
There’s no reason that Argentina should have needed a win on the last match-day to qualify. They’re one of the most talented sides in the world. Even if the tactics are bad, the fact that it’s a team of players like Messi, Di Maria, Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, and Javier Mascherano should have meant that qualification was a formality. Even in the notoriously difficult CONMEBOL tournament. Argentina have an embarrassment of attacking talent that should have seen them beat one or more of Peru, Venezuela, and Uruguay. Or at least, score more than a goal from all three games combined. Four, if you count the game against Bolivia that Messi was suspended for.
That failure falls on Messi as well. It falls on him harder than anyone else. The other players weren’t living up to their ability but Messi can’t be the best player in the world while not scoring in three games that his team desperately needed to win. Especially with the drought coming after he served a ban for childishly insulting a match official.
Luckily, Argentina was still in control of its World Cup destiny for the most part on the last day and soccer is very forgiving. Qualify and the sins of the past are forgotten.
The really hard part will come next summer. But for now, Argentina can relax a bit. In the future, we will discuss the future. What has happened in the now is that Messi has shown again why he is a class above everyone else. With a potential fallout on all levels looming if they failed to qualify, and his own legacy on the line, Messi dragged Argentina to victory. He saved them. He did what was expected of him and even more, surpassing his past genius in order to add to his already ridiculous myth.