Messi must continue to inspire
BRASILIA, Brazil -- At 11:38 a.m. local time, Lionel Messi walked off Argentina's bus and into the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha, the perils of his existence thrown into ever sharper relief.
It was the morning after Colombian defender Juan Camila Zuniga had fractured the back of Neymar, Messi's Barcelona running mate, knocking the omnipresent face of Brazil out of the World Cup. Now the Argentine was the lone galactico wearing No. 10 left in this tournament. Now, indisputably, no other team still breathing was more designed around their superstar.
Messi trundled along a wall by the loading dock toward his dressing room, a black satchel clutched under his left arm. On the drive in, his teammates and coaches had been singing and pounding against the inside of the bus windows. There wouldn't be silence for the rest of the day.
As a cameraman focused in on his face, Messi could hear the fans above, twirling flags, jumping up and down, shaking the arena. He could feel them. With 82 minutes to go before Argentina played Belgium for a spot in the World Cup semifinals, everyone was already watching his every move.
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To keep both eyes on Messi over the 90 minutes of a World Cup quarterfinal is to discover someone playing a different, more contradictory sport. One reason for this is speed: Messi, when he wishes to, not only moves faster and quicker than everyone else on the field but also slower and less. At 5-foot-7 and 148 pounds, he tends to pad around on defense like a bathrobed dad headed to the fridge to check on leftovers. Today, during furious Belgian counterattacks, Messi regularly shuffled -- and this is no exaggeration -- slower than he did walking off the bus.
The nanosecond Messi decides to attack, though, the dynamic switches entirely. Everyone else seems to be standing in place.
The most obvious instance came in the eighth minute. After receiving the ball in the midfield, Messi changed direction four times in the space of less than 10 feet, evaded two defenders, spun around and sent the ball forward to Angel Di Maria. The winger's deflected pass nevertheless found Gonzalo Higuain, who rocketed the ball into the left corner of the net for the game's one and only goal.
"Every move Messi makes is a sign of hope for us, whether he scores goals or not," Albiceleste manager Alejandro Sabella would say afterward. "Receiving the ball and never losing it, attracting two to three opponents? It is water in the desert for us."
But that hockey assist wasn't even Messi's most aqueous maneuver of the day. In the 28th minute, he was stationed at the front end of the center circle, and casually threaded a through-ball that zipped between two Belgians, skipped a foot past defender Vincent Kompany and softly arrived at the cleat of Di Maria, who was charging in front of the box. It was the sort of pass that changes how you see every other one; it made you sure that, of the three passes that Messi failed to complete today, out of 22, precisely zero were his fault.
In fact, when the 38th minute rolled around, and Messi proceeded to dribble through three defenders, it all kind of felt unfair. Marouane Fellaini, Belgium's reedy, curly-haired midfielder, had been assigned to mark him throughout the first half, an impossible task even though Messi was covering less ground than any other outfield player on the pitch. Given the height difference between these two men -- Fellaini stands 7 inches taller than Messi; a foot taller, when you factor in his afro -- it resembled soccer's answer to the Battle of Hoth in "The Empire Strikes Back."
"We were not impressed with Argentina," Belgium coach Marc Wilmots insisted to reporters after losing 1-0. "They are an ordinary team."
But then he backtracked. Well, Wilmots said, there were two exceptions. One was Di Maria, who wound up hobbling off the field, clutching his thigh, in the 33rd minute.
The other was self-evident.
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Friday morning, not far from where Messi had shuffled into the arena, Sabella had fielded questions about what one English journalist called Argentina's "apparent total reliance" on Messi. The bluntness of the description was fair.
Last month, the 27-year-old had arrived in Brazil having scored just once in two World Cups -- the last time in 2006, in a 6-0 blowout of Serbia-Montenegro. It was a headline-friendly, Diego Maradona-shaped albatross around the neck of a player frequently projected to retire as the best of all time.
But this tournament has seen Messi almost single-handedly extricate his homeland from a series of humiliating transnational disasters. In the opener, a 2-1 escape against modest Bosnia-Herzegovina, Messi had the game winner in the 65th minute. In the second, against humble Iran, he had the game's lone high point, blasting a golazo in the first minute of stoppage time. Next, against Nigeria, he scored twice in a 3-2 win. And against Switzerland, in the last minute of extra time in the round of 16, it was Messi who gathered the ball at midfield; lacerated the heart of La Nati's defense; and sent the ball, at the last moment, to Di Maria for the game's one and only goal.
Cue the "Himno Nacional Argentino." Cue self-appointed poet laureate Maradona, the team's ex-manager.
"They need to get it into their heads that we can't be 'Sporting Messi,'" the Argentine legend declared on a Venezuelan television show. "The kid is very alone."
At this, and similar accusations, Sabella had bristled.
"Any team that has a player like Messi will greatly depend on him," he said yesterday. "Four years ago, Messi was criticized and now we are believed to be too reliant on him."
This reliance, he seemed to argue, was how this team would keep going. It was how Argentina might win their first World Cup in 28 years.
And after Sunday's game, when word spread that Di Maria's injury may be even worse than expected -- a torn thigh muscle, which could knock him out of the tournament, like Neymar -- it exploded any semblance of a choice. National expectations for the semifinal against the Netherlands would go thoroughly unchanged.
"People in Argentina always believe that we're more than we are," Sabella had explained. "It's the way we are. When I was little, I always heard that we were the best in the world. We had not been world champions and we thought we were the best. It is part of our culture."
This, in other words, is why Argentina now cheers for Messi, shaking arenas throughout the country of their hated rival. This is why the world's best player -- perhaps the finest ever -- is both blessed and cursed.
Come Wednesday, Messi will walk off another bus, through another loading dock, and right back into another desert, where he must indulge the expected by doing the unbelievable.
He remains the only one who can make it rain.
A senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com based in New York. You can watch him every week on TV shows such as Around the Horn, The Sports Reporters and Olbermann. Follow him on Instagram (@pstorre) and Twitter (@PabloTorre).