NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia|DAILYNEWS UG| — All around this stadium, from the VIP seats where Diego Maradona was sitting all the way to the tippy-top rows cut just beneath the roof, everyone in the building looked for the electric-green shoes. They were bright. They were bold. They were all but glowing on this cool and breezy night.
They were on the feet of Lionel Messi.
This was supposed to be a night for Messi to sparkle, to follow up what Cristiano Ronaldo did for Portugal on Wednesday and drag his Argentina team forward once again. The last game — against Iceland, in which Messi missed a penalty kick — was in the past. The electric-green shoes, standing out so clearly on a team on which eight players wore plain white, were surely going to shine.
Except then the whistle blew. And the game began. And they didn’t.
What happened? Croatia 3, Argentina 0, for starters, though scores rarely tell the whole tale. Fair or not — and, on balance, it might be closer to not — the story of what 43,000 fans here saw will be remembered this way: Messi, captain of his national team, barely made an impact in a game that sent Argentina to the brink of a calamitous elimination from the World Cup at the group stage.
Now, interpreting body language can be a tricky (and often misguided) enterprise, but in truth, it seemed like Messi and his teammates never had the verve — the necessary pluck they needed on a night when they were all but playing for their tournament lives.
After the Iceland game, in which Messi took 11 shots but didn’t score, the pressure was immense, and it appeared to show. During the national anthems, he put his hand over his eyes in the way of stressed-out student about to start an exam. The Argentina coach, Jorge Sampaoli, who tinkered again with his starting lineup and formation, paced the sideline so hard he surely wore a path in front of the bench.
This team, remember, very nearly missed out on the tournament altogether, needing a hat trick from their savior on the final day of qualifying to get them through. It was not unreasonable, then, to think that everyone hoped the same could happen here: Messi would fix their shaky midfield, Messi would fix their leaky defense, Messi would fix all their problems with a few moments of his unmistakable brilliance.
But it didn’t happen, and afterward, as Croatian fans stomped and sung and shouted their way out of the stadium, even Sampaoli acknowledged what anyone who saw Nicolas Otamendi struggling at the back or Maximiliano Meza slogging through midfield already knew.
“I think,” the Argentina coach said, “because of the reality of the Argentine squad, it sort of clouds Leo’s brilliance.”
That is undoubtedly true. But Messi, too, deserves his share of the blame. He had just 20 touches in the first half, 49 overall in the game, and recorded a single shot on goal. Yes, some (if not much) of that is down to poor service from his teammates, but Messi’s languid pace bordered on somnolent for long stretches as he lingered on the edges of the field, literally turning in a circle at times — yet never moving off his spot — as the ball was passed around him.
It wasn’t until an hour in that he finally made a serious injection, running through the defense and laying off a ball to Gonzalo Higuain on the wing, a fairly basic move that still drew murmurs. The fans, despite what they had seen, still wanted to believe. They still hoped the magic was coming.
It never did. Argentina goalkeeper Willy Caballero gifted Croatia a goal that left his teammates “emotionally broken,” Sampaoli said, and Messi didn’t — or couldn’t — pull his team out of its malaise. Luka Modric scored with a blistering drive before Ivan Rakitic, who bottled up Messi for much of the game, added the final touch. All that was left was to wait for the final whistle.
When it finally came, Messi paused for only a moment, hands on hips and eyes to the sky. Then he headed quickly off the field, not stopping to talk to a teammate, not shaking the referee’s hand, not braking for anyone. He was, by several feet, the first Argentine player to exit.
A few Croatian reserves skipped past, shrieking and shouting, and Messi — just for a moment — cast a quick glance over his shoulder to see their glee. Then he continued, never really breaking stride, never really slowing down.
The electric-green shoes — so still for so long — disappeared into the tunnel and were gone.