Cry with me, Argentina: teary Messi delights fans and breaks Pelé’s record

Lionel Messi broke down in tears of joy after scoring three goals against Bolivia in a World Cup qualifier played in Buenos Aires’s Monumental stadium. The nation wept with him, in a communion of devotees relishing their favourite game, finally, the way it is meant to be. Argentina won three times in one night, Andres Burgo wrote in diario.ar: “With the 3-0, with the return of the fans to the stadium, and with Lionel Messi’s tears.”

Bolivia may not be as epic an adversary as, say, Brazil but the triple delight proffered by Messi was an emotional ride the nation’s football lovers yielded to in full. The first goal, a masterclass in precision nutmegging just under 15 minutes into the game, drew a smile on the captain’s face which mirrored the curve he had etched in the air with the ball, and stayed put for the remainder of the match.

It is always a pleasure to watch players enjoying their craft, but particularly so in the case of Messi wearing the Argentina strip. For so long it has seemingly weighed him down; the transformation into magic cloak is adorable. The way he gently strokes and kisses it at chest height after scoring is fast becoming an iconic insignia.

The second goal, perhaps more opportunistic than beautiful artistry, was his 78th for Argentina, positioning him ahead of Pelé as the top scorer in men’s South American international football history. Pelé’s last match for Brazil was in the early 70s. The smiling Messi was celebrated with cheers and bows.

The third goal was a quick flick close to the goalkeeper on the rebound. Because he could. A detail, a nice final touch. He celebrated with his arms outstretched, gliding over the pitch.

There was something close to perfection in the triangle. The 3-0 scoreline felt just right, enough to pave the road to Qatar with a happy start.

Brazil are top of the qualifying group and virtually guaranteed a spot at the 2022 finals in Qatar. Argentina, six points adrift in second, are a good team at the moment, the players working well together: Ángel Di Maria was on fire, but this was not a World Cup match. It felt at times like an exhibition friendly with the sole purpose of giving Messi a platform on home soil, to delight the fans who have adored him at a distance for so long.

The significance of the presence of fans cannot be overestimated. In a nation of football lovers, pandemic restrictions have kept the public at bay since March 2020. Around 20,000 tickets sold out in less than an hour, in a chaotic and sometimes desperate way. From the press seats to the VIP boxes, everyone who managed to be there hit a historic jackpot.

Argentina won the Copa America in Brazil in July, also without spectators. This triumph unequivocally established Messi in the hearts of even those critics who had been demanding that he deliver for the country as he had for Barcelona. The eerie silence of the empty stadium left a craving for the roar of the crowds that finally came home, a tearful Messi clutching the trophy amid the ecstatic chanting of his teammates and the public.

The hope had always been that the Copa would be won like this since the tournament was originally scheduled to be co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia. The latter pulled out due to social unrest, so Argentina was to be the sole host. But a surge in Covid-19 cases led the government scrapping those plans. Conmebol, the organisers, was left with no option but to move the event and Brazil jumped in, seemingly oblivious to its own pandemic curves and social protests.

The frailty of football’s institutional structures had come to the fore in a scandalous comedy of misunderstandings when Brazil’s qualifier against Argentina kicked off only to be interrupted less than five minutes into the game, as sanitation officials invaded the pitch to request the deportation of four Argentina players playing in the Premier League who should have been quarantined.

No doubt we shall hear more about the obligatory fields of immigration forms, the agreed protocols signed by the various federations and Conmebol, and the clubs’ and Fifa’s face-off over releasing players. The issue may well end up with CAS, but as Santiago Segurola wrote in El País: “This pandemic has exposed football to almost unbearable tensions. In these two inclement years football has staged a very ugly plot of ambitions, disloyalties, offensives and rallies.”

Still, Messi emerged with dignity from the fiasco. Led to the dressing room by a Conmebol official with the rest of the squad, he re-emerged wearing a photographer’s bib to discuss the situation. Tite, Neymar, Lionel Scaloni and various officials held a meeting that achieved little to eclipse the circus. South American football, the world pronounced, is a shambles. The finals of the World Cup qualifying rounds held every four years in the middle of the calendar year may soon become a thing of the past. Messi may not win a World Cup for Argentina.

Perhaps it does not matter. His deed is done. He won the Copa America, which to us South Americans is prestigious enough. And he has now sealed that triumph with his show of emotion. On the touchline, he simply broke down. “I’ve wanted this for so long,” he said, masked up, his eyes full of tears, “that it’s here, now, with my mother, my siblings, the terraces …”. He could not go on. And I think I do not exaggerate when I say Argentina wept with him. The catharsis, the release, was unanimous. Such is the power of football. And such is the power of love.

Comments are closed.