KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- The mighty Maracana is 64 years old toay (June 16). But, on the eve of its birthday, the temple of Brazilian football in Rio de Janeiro found itself suffering the indignity of an Argentinian takeover.
Not only by the raucous fans of their southern neighbour, either. Leading the invaders was the man portrayed by his adherents as the present-day usurper of the ultimate individual crown once held by Pele.
Leo 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.
Not much pressure then so, in all the circumstances, he and Argentina achieved a more than acceptable start with a somewhat scruffy 2-1 Group F dismissal of World Cup newcomers Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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.
By coincidence, also, Messi’s greatest rival for the status of world No1, Cristiano Ronaldo, would launch his own World Cup campaign 24 hours later.
No-one would pretend that this is the greatest Argentina national team of all time or even that it bears any sort of comparison with Cesar Luis Menotti’s World Cup winners of 1978 or Carlos Bilardo’s champions of 1986.
Messi is expected, all on his own, to span the difference.
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 a deceptive 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. Perhaps the change of tactical shape unsettled him.
Bosnia began to build their own game with more confidence. That meant play moving into Argentina’s half with Messi drifting around in no-man’s land. Just before the interval Messi indulged in one of those mini slaloms into the Bosnian penalty box but he had no support and was shuffled easily out of possession.
Messi was suffering, so Argentina were suffering.
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 regained interest in the game, 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 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.”
Remarkably the goal was only Messi’s second goal in the World Cup finals and arrived a full seven years and 364 days after the first against Serbia back in Germany in 2006. Bosnia pulled one back but it was mere consolation.
Argentina were winners on the night.
Messi had won it for them. The free kick; then the goal.
That crowning glory beckons, back in Maracana. One game down. Six to go.