“Soccer keeps people from thinking about more dangerous things.” – Vicente Calderón, longtime President of Atlético de Madrid
It was 2018. Nigeria, ever the underdogs, was just under a quarter of an hour into a match against Argentina that would seal the fate of both sides. Nigeria was playing from a position of relative power; Argentina, as ever, was in a place of righteous indignation and suffering from internal ailments.
All too familiar was Nigeria with the situation at hand, having lost World Cup games to Argentina in 2014 (3-2), 2010 (1-0), 2002 (1-0) and 1994 (2-1), each in the group stage. Decked to the nines, from 1 to 11, Nigeria made its initial splash in Russia sartorially before losing to a somewhat surprisingly fierce Croatia and then upending Euro 2016 darlings Iceland in the second.
So, then, it came to be that Argentina, which most would agree had underperformed on its way to a group-worst scenario entering the third game, would have a say in things, at least once Croatia’s careful yet forthright dismantling of Iceland became official.
Usually, that would mean Lionel Messi had a say in things, except that he had mostly removed himself from the narrative of Argentina’s France-in-2010-like meltdown. Or perhaps it was a mutiny, and Jorge Sampaoli really did concede coaching duties. That might explain Javier Mascherano’s continued presence in the starting XI, at the very least.
Nigeria, sick of its place as a novelty African team full of what (mostly white, mostly English) commentators had deemed “pace and power,” flew as the Golden Eagles they were through two games and was on its way to putting on another artful display against La Albiceleste. Even what happened next wouldn’t deter them; only Marcos Rojo’s later effort would certify that, as would Messi’s subsequent jumping on Rojo’s back and riding him around like a pony in the Andes countryside.
Exhausted of hearing about Cristiano Ronaldo, and the own goals, and VAR, and you and your friends @ing various dummy accounts of his on Twitter because he doesn’t have a Twitter, Lionel Messi arrived for his nation, the one that doesn’t want to claim the greatest soccer player ever as its own, with mere whiskers remaining in the fourteenth minute.
With space the likes of which only John Cage, Nina Simone and Neil Armstrong have ever inhabited, Éver Banega settled the ball in midfield. After a short push, and with a very “may as well” touch, Banega sent the parcel via air mail to a streaking Messi, who was busy dismissing Kenneth Omeruo, who somehow had to distract himself from thinking about marking the most dangerous forward in the history of the world’s most popular sport for long enough to actually, you know, mark the most dangerous forward in the history of the world’s most popular sport.
Messi received the ball on his left, dominant thigh, simultaneously calculating exactly the number of newtons he needed to nudge it along as he did while also adjusting for the weight of a nation so that he could manage a single touch on his left, dominant foot without the ball touching the ground.
Five strides later, he took it upon himself to deliver the package to its preferred recipient, the back of the net, a marriage hundreds of thousands of years in waiting. Omeruo could only feebly attempt a block with his foot, the least implicative gift on the registry.
As he is wont to do, Messi treated the ball like a companion, rather than something to be diminished and sent on. He understands the ball; he realizes its need for care and something like humanity. He alone realizes this, on this pitch, on this day, at this hour.
Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, was but a 19-year-old who was, by this time, well-versed in Messi’s ways, having watched the genius post a hat trick on the same match day of the La Liga season which saw his own club, Deportivo de La Caruña, relegated from Spain’s top flight. Uzoho had nothing to do with this, what with being kept in the reserve team while the likes of Rubén was mucking things up as the starter that day.
Messi ran to the corner and slid, his arms pointed skyward, presumably in an ode to his grandmother, to the Argentina that still doesn’t want him, to God. Maradona, his omnipresent shadow, folded his arms in something like prayer and looked skyward. Later, he would deploy both of his middle fingers in the way he once did his hand, each gesture signifying a goal in Argentina’s favor.
But now, for once, this moment belonged to Messi, without the “But what about…?” refrain which so often accompanied his unimpeachable brilliance.