Argentina’s last home game before the World Cup turned into an unexpected love-in at La Bombonera on Friday. The penultimate qualifier for the already qualified nation (they play Ecuador away in their last fixture) became the emotional send-off that is usually organised with that specific purpose but which the new calendar means will be impossible at a later point in the year.
Asked after the game about his future with the national team post-Qatar, Lionel Messi replied with a “who knows”, so potentially this was his last appearance on Argentinian soil wearing the oversized Argentinian strip, which ironically feels too small for him, at least in official competition.
It’s been a long road and before featuring at his fifth World Cup, it was fitting Messi was embraced by the man who gave him his first call-up to the national team – José Pekerman, now manager of Venezuela. The pair hugged as they emerged from the tunnel and it was almost father-son in nature.
Venezuela, already eliminated, put up some fight , especially during the first 20 minutes, during which Messi’s deployment as a false No 9 had some nerves on edge. But the team soon adjusted and the Paris Saint-Germain player flourished in a more creative role.
The Boca stadium, known as La Bombonera or the Chocolate Box because of its steep terraces, has a pretty unique atmosphere, and that was the case again on Friday. Filled to capacity, the crowd chanting in crescendo, a considerable number of women and children included among the maskless grinning faces, it exuded warmth and joy. The first goal was an explosion of ecstatic hugs, on the pitch as well as in the stands. By the time the third goal arrived, the entire ground was one single, delirious, sparkling feast, phone lights like stars peppering the night sky.
It was also emotional. One father who had taken his sons to an Argentina game for the first time afterwards reflected that there is a younger generation who have always had an intense connection with this particular squad. “They have no pending issues, they love them,” he said. Older followers who do have unresolved baggage emerged blissfully nostalgic, perhaps recognising those cherished sensations proffered by simultaneously experiencing hope and the satisfaction of enjoying the moment. It was at once a loving send-off and the beginning of the World Cup dream.
Boca fans familiar with the stadium wore their goose-pimples with pride, rival fans gracefully acknowledged the magic of the blue and yellow concrete surrounds, and those who weren’t there shared the moment with poetic gratitude. “This Argentina side is the new Unicorn,” tweeted the writer Roberto Martínez. “It grows, enjoys, desires, are ambitious and everything they try, works”.
Some French journalists contrasted Messi’s demeanour with his attitude at PSG – remarkable, really, when one looks back to a time when playing in front of the Argentina crowd seemed to be an unbearable burden, when he got booed playing at home and it seemed he could only muster his magic when featuring for Barcelona. Now the shift is visible to anyone paying attention: he is clearly relishing being the veteran orchestrator of the national side.
The World Cup may or may not be a trophy Messi finally gets to lift later this year but the joy of playing for Argentina has undeniably returned for him. Against Venezuela, his range of skills and supernatural capacity to shift rhythm was there for all to see for the entire 90 minutes. He was explosive, fast, skilful, and detailed in his precision. He left opponents spinning, turned, flicked and then burst into speed again. Slouched shoulders and baggy long shorts, he stood clocking the entire field one minute and then executed what he had thought up at the speed of light the next. He initiated Nico González’s opening goal, aideby scoring the third goal himself which was almost a misstep, seemingly laughing at himself while doing so.
The road to Qatar has been bumpy at times, but a generation of Pekerman boys are now the men in charge and have delivered Argentina’s longest undefeated run in decades. Manager Lionel Scaloni, assistants Pablo Aimar and Walter Samuel, youth team manager Javier Mascherano, all at the helm and all, like Messi, exchanged warm greetings with their former manager on Friday. It was a collective show of respect and dignity, the symbolic passing of the torch from master to pupils and a literal display of how the game lives and moves on, tradition forging in real time.
Life in Argentina is tough, economically and socially. As is the case elsewhere, Covid has taken its toll. And so football has once again become the thing the nation turns to for joy, for a release. And nothing encapsulates that better than the sight of Messi in national team colours with a ball at feet and, once again, a smile on his face.