KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Today Cristiano Ronaldo comes under the spotlight of world opionion; last night it was Leo Messi. Of all the outstanding footballers at the 2014 World Cup these are the giants.
Ronaldo struts out for the first time at these finals against Germany here today in Salvador. The Arena Fonte Nova has already witnessed one sensation at these finals when Holland demolised Spain 5-1. Will it see Ronaldo inspire Portugal to a rare victory over the Germans?
Messi set out his stall with two decisive moments in Argentina’s 2-1 win over newcomers Bosnia-Herzegovina.
First he delivered the free kick which prompted the fastest ever World Cup own goal by Sead Kolasinac (in two minutes eight seconds); then he exchanged passes with Gonzalo Higuain, teased three defenders into falling over each other, and claimed goal No2 all for himself.
There, he appeared to be saying to Ronaldo: “Match that – if you can.”
Messi entered this World Cup under almost impossible pressure. He was supposed to prove himself a challenger to the world legend of O Rey, a worthy Argentinian successor to Diego Maradona and a man to seize the one great stage he had never yet commanded.
The conundrum of Messi in the blue and white stripes of Argentina, and wearing their captain’s armband, is that he never played ‘serious’ football there; at 13 he and his family were spirited away to Barcelona.
He may have been born in Argentina but he was not even a Porteno, not born and brought up in Buenos Aires but in provincial Rosario. Then, in football terms, his stylistic education was Catalan. Even his tussles with tax authorities over his $45m-a-year earnings are with the Spanish revenue department not its equivalent in Argentina.
Thus Messi entered the blue-and-white cauldron of Maracana – where he had never, ever played before – with his own nationality an issue.
If Argentina fail to fulfil all the massive expectations then it will not be coach Alejandro Sabella or stalwarts Pedro Zabaleta or Javier Mascherano or Angel Di Maria who must bear the weight of a nation’s anger; it will be Messi.
He began perfectly. Barely had he finished with the captaincy formalities than he was delivering the third-minute left-wing free kick which bobbled off Bosnian defender Sead Kolasinac and fell over the line for the fastest own goal in World Cup history (two minutes, eight seconds).
Messi, according to his (Madrid-based) detractors, has endured a poor seasons this past 12 months. Barcelona finished only runners-up in league and cup, were merely semi-finalists in the Champions League and he scored a ‘mere’ 28 goals in La Liga.
As the match progressed so the sense of anti-climax grew.
Argentina missed the focal attacking point of injured Gonzalo Higuain up front and Messi attempted to make amends by attempting too much on his own.
Coach Sabella, for the second half, had no option. Despite their fragility he brought on Fernando Gago in midfield and Higuain up front. Suddenly Messi had the platform he needed. He began finding space in which to work then took a return pass from Higuain, teased two Bosnian defenders into falling over each other, and struck the wondrous goal he would have demanded of himself.
Sabella had no doubts. As he said: “Messi is best player in world whatever happens at this World Cup and one of best of all time – whatever he does at this World Cup.”