LONDON - Twenty-four years after Argentina last reached a World Cup semi-final, their genius was beset by domestic turmoil. On the big day he was accusing his ex-girlfriend of running off with watches and diamond earrings. An international arrest warrant was being sought.
But enough about Diego Maradona. His heir, the substantially more stable Lionel Messi, has found his way to a World Cup final in Rio’s Maracana stadium, despite drifting out of the game after half-time. Never mind: Messi can still have his Maradona moment on Sunday, even if Germany are red hot favourites.
Messi buried his penalty in a 4-2 spot-kick victory for Argentina after Louis van Gaal, Holland’s coach, had assigned the first Dutch kick to Ron Vlaar, the Aston Villa centre-back who had the game of his life before missing from 12 yards.
After Messi, Ezequiel Garay, Sergio Agüero and Maxi Rodríguez had all scored for Argentina, Brazilians clutched their heads again. The hated neighbours are on their way to the Rio shrine, where the sight of Argentina lifting the trophy would just about finish the host country off.
The distance from Maradona to Messi is more than just the two and a half decades since El Diego’s team reached the final of Italia ’90, where they lost 1-0 to West Germany. The two narratives span the gap between the golden age of renegade street footballers and one-man corporations. But the purpose has not changed. Argentina is one of those countries that seeks prestige not only through the production of gifted individuals but bragging rights on the international stage.
Even in his long quiet spell, Messi never stopped being the prime threat to Holland, which is why Bruno Indi Martins, the Dutch centre-back, fouled him so persistently that he had to be withdrawn at half-time for the sake of the team. A body-check went unpunished but an arm-tackle when Argentina’s captain was dancing towards the Dutch goal finally earned the oranje’s No 4 a caution.
In the second half and through extra-time it became a slog for the most famous player on the pitch, as defenders took this chance to say to a global audience: ‘We matter too.’ Nigel de Jong, the Dutch midfield crocodile, was expected to do the roughing up but mostly confined himself to following the chief danger around like an autograph hunter.
Before the game Van Gaal laid down a challenge. “On the most important stage, he hasn’t always pulled it off,” said Manchester United’s next manager. “He’s always found it difficult to do that at international level and he wants to change that at this tournament. We want to stop him, so that’s going to be quite a challenge.”
Van Gaal’s counterpart, Alejandro Sabella, confirmed what most of us feel. Although Cristiano Ronaldo has replaced him as the Balon d’Or winner – the world player of the year – Messi’s artistry here in Brazil has restored his No 1 status. In the later stages however he was largely fighting his way out from under an orange blanket.
Subdued in South Africa four years ago, Barcelona’s chief artiste had scored four times in the five games Argentina had won by a single goal. But although they had scraped and scratched their way to the last four Messi’s catalytic influence had been thrilling, and suggestive of a change in his game. In his mid-twenties he seems to be finding pleasure in spraying and rolling passes for team-mates, challenging himself to apply the right weight and backspin.
He always interchanged with Xavi and Andrés Iniesta at Barcelona, but they tended to be short, quick one-twos, or threaded balls around the penalty box. With Argentina here, he has experimented with the conductor’s role, mainly in concert with Ángel di María, who was always keen to run onto his stroked passes, until a thigh injury in the Belgium game landed him on the sidelines.
“I always said Di María was extremely important. He brings balance to the side, can perform various different jobs and associates well with Messi,” Sabella said. “He has won the Champions League and all of Europe wants him in their side.”
Di María’s replacement was Enzo Pérez, who excelled for Benfica last season but lacks his better-known team-mate’s talent for spearing through a defence.
Moments before the end of the first-half Messi struck one of those curling 30-yard balls to set Marcos Rojo free down Holland’s right flank but the cross flew over Gonzalo Higuaín’s head. Higuaín expressed his disgust by harrumphing in the Dutch penalty box and then chipped away at Rojo as the teams left the field.
By that point in the Brazil-Germany game we were already compiling the obituaries for the hosts. The avalanche of goals in Belo Horizonte was not to be repeated here, with a tight Argentina defence and Dutch tactical fluidity twisting the minds of both teams.
Alongside a first World Cup win for Europe in Latin America, Messi’s possible graduation to become a great international footballer is Sunday’s big plotline. While Maradona was calling on Interpol to help him recover his allegedly stolen trinkets from Rocio Oliva, 22, with the usual Maradona-esque song and dance, his successor his fighting his way through a thicket of orange shirts, with the Maracana flashing in his mind. The task turned harder and harder.
But his mesmerising talent has already left its imprint on this World Cup and there could yet be another mark for him in history. The big one. The one Maradona made. – Telegraph