Argentina 1 Iceland 1: The interval was almost upon us at Spartak Stadium and Jorge Sampaoli’s stress levels had long since moved beyond critical. That’s actually where they started.
No medical measure or DEFCON scale could calculate what was going on under the suit jacket and skinny jeans of Argentina’s manager on Saturday. He prowled the periphery of his technical area and wore the grass bald as muscles jerked and veins popped.
But as the match clock hit 43 minutes, it momentarily looked grave for the 58-year-old. Argentina had gifted possession away again and he turned in disgust from the field. He reached his hands up to his neck and grasped at…nothing. It was Arsene Wenger feeling for an open pocket where there was none — only much more serious.
Was Sampaoli groping for a tie that had long since been discarded as a bad idea? Was he having one of those milliseconds where you think an inhaled Airwave gum is going to be the thing that does you in? Or was he checking for physical manifestation of the mental noose that comes with this job? The latter seems most likely.
If Saturday was asphyxiating for Sampaoli, it was even more so for Argentina’s icon.
Lionel Messi was suffocated by Iceland for 90 minutes and more in the opening match of his fourth World Cup. But he was suffocated by Argentina too. By the 10 Argentines around him, by the one gasping for air on the sidelines, by the one rubbing his nose in the posh seats, by the thousands jammed low and high into Spartak Stadium and by the millions back in the homeland.
If you can love a footballer too much then Argentina loves the most gifted footballer of this and any generation too much. They suffocate him with love wrapped up in wild fantasies of where it will take them.
Fully five hours before kick-off here they were draping love letters to their captain across wire fences and gates outside the home of Spartak Moscow. Other football fans might not write on flags as prolifically as they used to (Crosses of St George will adorn the arena in Volgograd today but a place name like Clacton-on-Sea is about as poetic as they’ll get) but Argentines still go all out.
They find space for full sonnets in tribute to this No.10 with a former No.10 never far away. On flags and in song, Messi and Maradona go hand in hand and the former is never able to forget that the latter requited their love with glory.
When he emerged to warm up, Messi stood and stared at the flags and the words. He had another lingering look after his national anthem had rumbled around the place. Love songs poured down from the tribunes. And it soon became suffocating again.
Messi foraged and fought, fought for spaces where Iceland weren’t. But they were everywhere. The knot was loosened by Sergio Aguero only to be tightened anew by goalkeeper and defence. He tried sighters from distance, slid passes to places they just wouldn’t go.
With 25 minutes left he could have lifted so much of the pressure but Hannes Halldorsson had his number from the penalty spot. The clock ticked down and more dead ball chances came and went. The last kick of the game would be Messi’s, a free-kick that ploughed into a wall of ice. As the whittle sounded, he booted the rebound high into the stand and tore his armband off — the only thing that could even feel like it would ease the suffocation. By the time he trudged off, it was wrapped back around his arm. Inescapable.
Afterwards, he took on blame and said the penalty miss had ‘hurt’. His coach preferred not to dwell.
“To evaluate Lionel Messi’s work is difficult because it was an uncomfortable match for him,” said Sampaoli. “I know that Leo is very committed to help Argentina to move forward.”
To expect him to lead this team anywhere close to glorious places feels ludicrous. When Willy Caballero was caught out of position for the god-damned national anthem it should have been a reality check. A cup goalkeeper he may be. A World Cup goalkeeper he is not.
Elsewhere, Sampaoli’s tactics seemed at times to centre on hiding the fact that Argentina are so lacking in the middle. Central defenders would push high and Aguero and Messi would drop deep to meet them. See? Who needs a midfield anyway.
It wasn’t all bad of course. But it was so rarely good. Iceland, so supremely resilient, so clear in their approach, so calm in its execution, were again left wondering what the fuss was all about. Walk in the park. Especially at the pace Argentina moved the ball.
“There was nothing in their game that surprised us and we could stop their threats,” said manager Heimir Hallgrímsson of his remarkable team, trying to be diplomatic but hampered by the truth.
All truth. Iceland were a testament to teamwork. Argentina still hadn’t figured out how to be good at being individualistic.
If they don’t get any closer to figuring it out in time for Thursday’s date with Croatia then one individual’s national service could come to the most unromantic ending imaginable.
Sure, love hurts. But for Lionel Messi it shouldn’t hurt this much.
Caballero, Salvio, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico, Meza (Higuain 84), Mascherano, Messi, Biglia (Banega 54), Di Maria (Pavon 75), Aguero.
Halldorsson, Saevarsson, Arnason, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Magnusson, Johann Berg Gudmundsson (Gislason 66), Gunnarsson (Ari Freyr Skulason 76), Gylfi Sigurdsson, Hallfredsson, Bjarnason, Finnbogason (Sigurdarson 88).
Szymon Marciniak (Poland).
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