Lionel Messi embraces the ‘Maradona spirit’ to take Argentina to the brink of the World Cup final
As Lionel Messi begins to find the right words with the right touches, some of them surprisingly aggressive, there has been a telling phrase used to describe him around the Argentina camp.
They talk about the 35-year-old as a “leader Maradonina”, a Maradona-like leader.
After his first big moment at the 2022 World Cup, which was the essential and exceptional goal against Mexico, Messi was seen looking to the sky and speaking “gracias Diego”. His team-mates now speak of “Diego’s spirit”, and the 35-year-old is also described as a “man possessed”.
While Argentine football may be overly invested in emotion and the influence of the metaphysical – one player instructed the friend of an agent to stay because his arrival “brought good luck” – there are very real actions and effects to this. It could be seen after the quarter-finals. The Netherlands’ Wout Weghorst had come over to try and switch shirts, but Messi was still in fight mode, delivering the now famous line as he broke from an interview. He was still engrossed in the intensity of the competition.
The Argentine players, meanwhile, talk about a captain who leads by example in every way, who so loudly encourages them and gives team speeches. The various football figures who make up the extended entourage have also noted that they have seen this before, and that it is “like 1986”.
The problem for Argentina in this game is that for Croatia it is the spirit of 1998 and 2018. It is not really the quality of play of these campaigns, it must be said, but it has only strengthened the will of the squad.
Croatia know they would have been out of the group stage had Romelu Lukaku taken one of his many chances in the last group stage. They have barely been in the lead even during this tournament, and that time equates to just 46 minutes. It’s something else similar to 2018, but in this case it has fostered a driving belief similar to one of the other semi-finalists.
Just as an aura has grown around Morocco that nobody can score against them, there is a sense that Croatia simply cannot be beaten. No matter how you go at them, no matter if you take the lead, they keep coming. They find a way. This is something that has been said about another Luka Modric team this year at Real Madrid, and it doesn’t really feel like a coincidence.
That makes this a contest between two teams driven by the classic emotional momentum of the tournament, where something bigger takes over and takes them very far. It is far more relevant than the fact that they met in 2018, other than how it is such a surprise that Croatia have been able to pick up where they left off in Moscow as World Cup revelations.
It is something that appears to be unique in the history of the competition. It is very rare that the surprise finalists go again.
Whether they can go that far again – and get another game that manager Zlatko Dalic will describe as one of the best in their history – depends on this, and how their opponents react.
Because if Croatia’s World Cup run has been completely characterized by refusal to lose, Argentina’s has been hit by a major defeat. Everyone around the squad now says that the shock against Saudi Arabia was “the best thing that could have happened”. Jorge Valdano, Argentine football’s philosopher-poet, said it best, of course.
“Argentina’s advantage is that the first traumatic loss created a vicious circle, but also a virtuous circle: it obliges change, forces you to overcome, makes you stronger.”
It has been seen in every game since. Valdano even noted how it was a fear for Brazil that they were “too fond of football, which tends to hide around the corner and sting you when you least expect it”.
Instead, Argentina play as if they always expect danger, in keeping with how they have been forced to treat every match since Saudi Arabia as “a final”. It can bring panic, as seen in so many hacked clearances, but also conviction. Argentina continue to come through. The Dutch game spoke of their mistakes but also their tenacity in overcoming them.
It would have been very easy for Argentina to concede twice. It was only how they lost that 2-0 lead in the last minute. That was how they were forced into penalties despite bombarding the Dutch goal throughout the second period of extra time. Everyone was well aware of the idea that the team that feels more fortunate to get to penalties generally wins. Argentina overcame that, as well as so much else, Messi setting the tone with his huddle speech and then rousing the fans after scoring his cool opening penalty. Shootout became a psychological thriller in the way that has been talked about so often, but is sometimes exaggerated. Not this time.
The reaction – especially in the face of Dutch provocation – also reflected this defiance, this will to fight.
It has been important. In recent tournaments, Argentina have been all too aware of this suffocating pressure to achieve. They have talked about how it has “frozen” them. However, this has been banished in Qatar by two strong realizations. One was their immediate situation after the Saudi Arabia defeat, which meant they had to win all six of their remaining games to win this World Cup. The second was that this could be Messi’s last World Cup. That is why his own rise as a leader has brought it all together. It is a shared desire and a sense of possibility. The squad says that there is now little of the “negative pressure” from before. It’s about what could be next.
They also talk about other elements coming together. If this is not a perfect Argentina team in terms of positions or quality, it is in terms of chemistry. They feel it’s just the right mix of veterans and young players. No one is unhappy about not playing as Lionel Scaloni has kept everyone involved.
To go with a similar determination, there is a similar mix in the Croatian squad. They have some stars who elevate everything, but also some underrated players who drive everything. If Croatia have defied all expectations to get this far, so have many of their players.
As journalist Juraj Vrdoljak says, so many of these players “have a history of making it despite some heavy doubts”. Josip Juranovic had to go from third division football as a defensive midfielder to a free back-up player to right back at Hajduk Split and was dismissed as a limited player. Mario Pasalic was sent away by Chelsea on various loans before suddenly finding his way in Italian football with Atalanta. Bruno Petkovic, the goalscorer against Brazil, failed to score at all over two years in Italy with Bologna and Hellas Verona before returning to Croatia as a substitute for Dinamo Zagreb. Mislav Orsic was a journeyman around Slovenia, South Korea and China. Even Dejan Lovren has been dismissed as a bit of a joker.
And yet here they are, complementing genuine world-class talents like Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Josko Gvardiol, and once again on the brink of the biggest and most beloved event in all of sport. This team, like these players, just keeps going.
Whether they can progress will depend on what Argentina do. The intrigue of this game is that Dalic has ensured that Scaloni has more to think about.
Croatia are currently working on ways to mitigate Messi’s influence, but they know how they will set up. The need to constantly have a guard of four players around them fits well with their midfield, meaning they can outnumber Argentina in the middle of the pitch.
Scaloni must bypass it, or through it. He needs to change his shape to have more players in the middle, which means Leandro Paredes is likely to come back in.
The positive thing for Argentina is that Scaloni is now good at changing formations. They are adaptable. There have even been games in this World Cup where he has tried something new in training on the eve of a game, only to switch to something else for the game itself.
If it has the potential to cause problems at some point, it also shows how comfortable the players are with his approach.
Such considerations will greatly affect this semifinal, but it doesn’t feel like they will decide it. We are at a point where several intangibles have an undue effect.
After all, it has been the story of their waves to the stage at Lusail where so many points meet.
It’s a historical player pitted against a group of cast-offs no one wanted. It is a team that will not be defeated against a team driven by defeat.
It will be about the will, as this World Cup has already shown so often. It is something that has gone beyond words.