An estimated 40,000 fans from Argentina have made the trip to Qatar, with the stands in every game awash with blue-and-white shirts.
After the shock opening defeat by Saudi Arabia, every game has been like an amassing of mini World Cup trophies on their way to the main prize.
The World Cup in Argentina is everything; football is everything. Everything revolves around this sport because that is the best possible way to show the world Argentina is special.
There was a time, in the 1970s when it was understood that Japan and Argentina would join the richest and most powerful countries in the world.
Since then, Argentines say there are four types of countries: developed, underdeveloped, Japan, and their country. Japan because with nothing they did everything, and Argentina because with everything they did nothing. They lost that train.
Now, the lack of confidence in the finances of the country – huge inflation, more than half of the country considered poor – in the politicians, in the system, has divided people who live in two extremes, unable to find common ground.
Football is still the only thing that unites them, as was seen in the celebrations in the center of Bueno Aires, and all over the nation.
That demand accentuates the tension when a footballer wears a blue-and-white shirt. For them, the only thing worth anything is victory. That is the pressure Messi carries.
“It is not easy to go out on the field knowing that you have to win, because if you don’t you’re out. And we have been doing this since the second game,” Messi explained after the Croatia match. “That is mentally very wearing and this group has known how to overcome that. We played five finals and one more remain.”
Messi has a new frame of mind. In the past, he did not allow himself to enjoy himself too much. The priority was the next game. It was that need to go for more that took him to such heights.
Now, freed of the pressure since Argentina won the 2021 Copa America, he has become aware that the end is nigh and has allowed himself to be carried away by what is around him.
He is embracing all that the World Cup means, including being tied to an invisible thread that links him to Maradona. He has been seen singing with the fans at the end of the matches. Especially ‘Muchachos’, where Maradona encourages Messi from heaven.
“I was born in Argentina, the land of Diego and Lionel, of the kids from Malvinas, which I will never forget. I can’t explain it to you, because you won’t understand, the finals we lost, how many years I cried for them. But that’s over, because, at the Maracana, the final against the Brazucas was won again [reference to the last Copa America final won by Argentina]. Guys, now we’re excited again. I want to win the third; I want to be the world champion. And we can see Diego, in heaven, with Don Diego and La Tota, encouraging Lionel.”
The day after reaching the semi-finals, Messi spent the day with his wife, Antonela, and their three children at the University of Qatar facilities. He worked a little in the gym and put himself in the hands of the physiotherapists.
During the following days, he trained without pushing himself too far and spent the afternoons playing the card game ‘truco’ with his teammates – which was as competitive as you would expect it to be.
After beating Croatia, he spent more time with his family. Taking advantage of two days off helped him back to earth after the emotions of reaching the sixth senior final of his career with the national team.