Somehow the Panini sticker on the bus window said it all.
FFT used public transport to get around Doha, right next to a sticker of the late Diego Armando Maradona pasted on the window by one of the thousands of Argentinian fans who have populated Qatar in recent weeks. The sticker was from Italia 90, four years after Maradona’s greatest triumph, and El Pibe de Oro posed nobly, like one of those posters you used to see of his compatriot Che Guevara.
For all the greatness of Lionel Messi – despite many considering him the greatest player of all time – there has always been only one number one in his homeland. And it’s not the 35-year-old.
As more and more countries have left this tournament, Argentina’s supporters have become more dominant. From the start of this World Cup, they have been one of the best represented fan bases in Qatar, behind the many, many Mexicans.
Doha feels different now than it did in the early days of the World Cup, when 32 sets of fans all gathered in one city, chanting, blowing the horns, blasting in all different directions at one of the four matches that took place each day. This week, only eight lands remained – where the portacabin village once was FFT our stay was chaotic, struggling to cope with the sheer number of supporters, now it seems quiet, almost idyllic – as idyllic as a portacabin village can be, anyway.
Some fans grab a bite to eat at the various food trucks, relax in front of a giant screen or pass the time playing table tennis on the tables near the reception. Many Moroccans have arrived in the city – some are from London, inspired by their shock victory over Spain, eager to be here, desperate for a way to reach their quarter-final against Portugal, one way or another. “Do you have tickets for Morocco?” one says to almost everyone he sees. “It’s worth asking.”
At virtually every other tournament the Netherlands has ever been involved in, thousands upon thousands of Dutch supporters have dominated the city they played in and turned it into a sea of orange. FFT were in Basel for a European Championship quarter-final against Russia in 2008, when 100,000 showed up, although fewer than 40,000 were in the stadium.
It’s not like that here – a Dutch DJ bus was parked on Lusail Boulevard pumping out EDM tunes, but almost every football shirt you could see outside the beautiful Lusail Stadium was an Argentine shirt. It felt like for every Dutch fan, there were at least 100 supporting Argentina.
Many were travelers from South America, many others were locals, who have been flocking to Argentina since the start of this World Cup, many in Messi shirts, some even in bespoke traditional clothing, complete with blue and white stripes.
Not that their Argentinian love started with Messi – more than 50 percent of Qatar’s 2.8 million residents are actually migrants from India, Bangladesh and Nepal, who adopted the Albiceleste as their second team during Maradona’s days. Diego’s brilliant but controversial performance against England in 1986 captured many hearts – right after the Falklands War, many shared Maradona’s distaste for the British Empire, given South Asia’s previous struggle for independence.
Two years after Maradona’s death, it is now Messi who receives their love. At club level, he has already done enough for many to call him the best ever. At the international level, despite last year’s Copa America victory, only a World Cup win could put him level with Maradona, let alone three-time winner Pelé.
Messi came into this tournament knowing exactly that. At age 35, this was his last chance to fill the gaping void in his resume. A month that could forever decide where it would rank in the list of all-time greats.
In many ways, this was the veterans’ World Cup, a tournament that saw many of the biggest stars reach the twilight of their careers. For some it was a step too far. Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, they all struggled to find their best form. Ronaldo has even been dropped.
There has never been any danger of Messi losing his place. Granted, he’s not the same mobile whippet he used to be, but he’s still head and shoulders Argentina’s best player. He scored three times for this quarter-final and brought a touch of quality whenever he got the ball.
For the second time in eight years, Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands stood in the way of Messi’s way to World Cup glory. At the time, the Dutch boss had used all his experience to oust Spain in the group stage, then presented himself as a genius by taking goalkeeper Tim Krul off the bench for the shoot-out against Costa Rica. In the semi-final against Argentina, he had used all his substitutions by the time a scoreless game eventually went to penalties. Jasper Cillessen couldn’t save a single penalty – beaten by Messi and three of the Flea’s teammates – as the Albiceleste progressed to the final.
For both Messi and Van Gaal, it always looked like it could be their last ever World Cup game for the defeated – perhaps a last game ever, in Van Gaal’s case.
If both sides needed a boost before kick-off, Brazil’s shock defeat to Croatia provided it. A biggest ever World Cup match between Argentina and Brazil was suddenly off the cards – the two sides had never met in a knockout match after the last 16 – and a golden opportunity to reach the final seemed to have opened. No wonder the Argentinian fans seemed so cheerful – they literally bounced with enthusiasm.
With the bright orange contingent of the Dutch of just over 100 people in a small corner of the stadium, the Lusail had turned into Buenos Aires.
Intriguingly, boss Lionel Scaloni opted to switch to five at the back for the first time in the tournament, matching the formation Van Gaal has set up for the Orange. After a good start, the Netherlands dominated possession, largely nullifying the Argentinian threat.
Messi was only fleetingly involved, but when he got the ball the crowd roared, he often beat a man with ease and seemed capable of doing damage in the blink of an eye. His moment came in the 35th minute, he picked up the ball outside the penalty area and then brilliantly disguised a centimeter-perfect through ball for fullback Nahuel Molina to score his first ever international goal. It was Messi at his best.
The roof almost came off the giant Lusail stadium, so loud was the sound that greeted the target. Soon literally thousands of fans were chanting “Messi! Messi” as they literally bowed in adoration of the great man. The best part of 80,000 people had come especially to this arena to witness such brilliance. For the fourth time in this tournament, he had helped break the deadlock for Argentina at a time when they were looking for inspiration.
Hours earlier, it looked like Neymar had delivered a decisive moment, a contribution that could put his country on the path to victory and put Brazil ahead in extra time. In the end it counted for nothing. Could this assist from Messi be different? The longer this tournament goes on, the more likely it is that even a final between Messi and Ronaldo is starting to look – albeit with the Portuguese striker likely on the bench.
In the second half, Messi delivered another fine pass that seemed to have opened up the Dutch defense again, only for Rodrigo de Paul to fall over at the crucial moment. If only the rest of the team were as good as Messi. A scary thought. He was by far the man of the match and continued to impact this tournament in a way that shouldn’t be possible at his age.
Fittingly, he also got the goal he deserved, firing effortlessly from the penalty spot to make it 2-0 – his fourth goal of the tournament, equaling his best ever World Cup score from 2014. their heads in the stands, it started to feel like the Bombonera.
That was until the match revolved around the substitutions of both managers. While Scaloni appeared to take the opportunity to give some minutes to players, Van Gaal believed the game was over, and Van Gaal deployed his plan B, including Burnley’s Wout Weghorst – currently on loan to Besiktas after the Clarets’ relegation from the Premier League. A comeback seemed unlikely, it happened, Weghorst scoring twice amid a maelstrom of an end of match that saw Messi booked for dissent and at least two incidents that nearly turned into a mass brawl. Well, without that it wouldn’t be a game in Argentina.
Messi has a history with penalties – he missed from the spot in Argentina’s Copa America final defeat to Chile in 2016 and then briefly retired from the international stage – but this time he calmly rolled his kick into the net, both sides from Emi Martinez from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis who put the Albiceleste back in control. When Martinez made his second save, Messi jumped for joy and punched the air with both fists. Soon a place in the semi-finals was finally his.
This World Cup started with Messi scoring a penalty to put his team on course for victory at the same side of the same Lusail stadium in what ended up being a seismic shock of defeat to Saudi Arabia.
Two days later, Brazil defeated Serbia in the Lusail, after which a lone South Asian Argentinian fan stood outside the stadium among a sea of jubilant Seleção supporters, approaching everyone and anyone with a rudimentary homemade banner.
“We’ll be back,” it read next to an Argentinian flag and a photo of Lionel Messi. That fan’s loyalty never wavered and he’s starting to be rewarded. Now Brazil is gone and Messi marches on to potential glory. Croatia will have something to say about that – after all, they beat Argentina 3-0 in the group stage in 2018. But with Albiceleste’s South American rivals eliminated, Argentina are now going into the semi-finals as favourites.
Maybe, just maybe, their star man will end his World Cup career on a high in the same stadium this Sunday, finally emulating Maradona’s achievements in an Argentina shirt and putting the seal on his legacy once and for all.
If he does, expect the sticker on the bus to be Lionel Andres Messi at the 2026 World Cup.
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