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On Soccer

Behind Lionel Messi’s brilliance and with surprisingly little drama, Argentina hits the brink of World Cup glory

Lionel Messi celebrates with Leandro Paredes after Argentina advanced to another World Cup Final.JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images

Where was the suffering? Where was the anguish? Has Argentina ever expected to win any other way? Were even their most fervent admirers prepared for what the Albiceleste accomplished painlessly on Tuesday in Qatar?

“It is very difficult to put this into words,” said coach Lionel Scaloni after Lionel Messi and his striped amigos dominated Croatia 3-0 in Lusail to advance to the World Cup Final against the winner of Wednesday’s encounter between Morocco and defending champion France. “This is what I had always dreamed as an Argentinian.”

Heartbreak still could happen on Sunday but this was a night to cherish. This was Argentina playing with a devastating panache and imposing its will upon a Croatian team that had been impossible for others to crack.


Having needed penalty kicks to subdue the Netherlands in the quarters and watching the Croatians do the same to Brazil the Argentines were prepared for two hours of bloodletting in the desert and another shootout.

Instead they’d all but wrapped up everything before halftime with two lethal blows — a Messi penalty kick in the 34th minute and a dash-and-deke strike by Julian Alvarez in the 39th. The Croatians, who’d checkmated everyone else in the tournament, simply couldn’t handle what was being thrown at them.

“I congratulate Argentina on the victory,” said coach Zlatko Dalic, whose squad had waxed Argentina by three goals in 2018 and hoped to be the first team since Brazil in 2002 to reach consecutive finals. “We have to pull ourselves together, raise our heads. I can’t blame the boys for anything.”

Not when the world’s greatest player (with deserved nods to Brazil’s Neymar and France’s Kylian Mbappe) is carrying his team on his back when he’s most needed.

It was Messi, their Little Big Man, who got the Albiceleste past the Dutch, setting up the first goal and scoring the other. And it was Messi who took the wind out of the Croatians with a foot in all three goals.


His penalty kick, his fourth of the tournament including the shootout, was roofed with such authority that the ball nearly burst through the netting. Messi’s short pass to Alvarez set up an unstoppable run five minutes later.

But it was his wizardry in creating the decisive third that conjured memories of Diego Maradona in his prime. After breaking down the right side with Josko Gvardiol at his shoulder, Messi dribbled the masked defender dizzy, twisting him into a Christmas bow before feeding Alvarez in front for the finisher in the 69th minute. “It was the true Messi we expected to see,” said Dalic, who didn’t have a striker anywhere near his quality.

So three dozen years since its last World Cup triumph over the West Germans Argentina gets another shot at La Tercera, the elusive third championship that only the Brazilians, Germans, and Italians have achieved.

That quest has taken far longer than their rabid countrymen thought it would when the Albiceleste won in 1978 and 1986 and their quadrennial exits have been uncommonly painful.

The unsuccessful 1990 defense was excruciating. After dropping the opener to Cameroon the Argentines had to go down to the final 10 minutes before beating Brazil 1-0, survived shootouts with Yugoslavia and Italy, and lost the final to the Germans on a late penalty kick after being down to nine men.


In 1998 the Albiceleste went out to the Dutch on a last-minute goal in the quarterfinals. The Germans did the honors at three straight tournaments — a quarterfinal shootout in 2006, a 4-0 demolition in the 2010 quarters, and an extra-time goal in the 2014 final.

“I can’t explain this to you because you won’t understand,” go the words of the Argentina theme song that translates approximately as ‘Boys, We Have Our Hopes Up Again’. “The finals we lost, how many years I’ve cried for them.”

What got their supporters’ hopes up — more than 40,000 of them traveled to Qatar — was last year’s 1-0 triumph over Brazil in the Copa America final in Rio, Argentina’s first in the continental championship since 1993.

So the shock loss to Saudi Arabia in their opener, which ended a 36-match unbeaten streak, brought back all of the ghosts of Mundials past and the unthinkable possibility of early elimination.

“Every match was a final,” said Messi, who urged his colleagues to hang together while they were on the bus back from the stadium. “We were aware if we did not win things would be complicated for us.”

The Dutch match, which Argentina led 2-0 with eight minutes to play, should have been over in regulation. But the Albiceleste got careless, found themselves in extra time and needed goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez to block the first two Oranje shootout bids to get them through.

“Argentina must suffer.” You could count on one of their players saying that every quadrennium. So even with their side up comfortably at intermission their drum-banging faithful couldn’t relax until Alvarez’s second strike.


The final half hour turned into a festival. Argentina’s reserves were leading cheers from the bench. Messi was beaming. When the final whistle blew the players were singing along with their fans: “Muchachos, ahora nos volvimos a ilusionar.”

They have their hopes up again, now just 90 minutes from fulfillment. “Today we are experiencing something spectacular,” Messi declared.

John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.