Asometime late on a wild night in Lusail, Lionel Messi asked what happened there. “A bit of everything,” he said. There had been four goals, eight penalties, 17 yellow cards and one red. In the end, there was only one winner, even if they had to win it twice. Maybe even three times. Or, to put it another way: when the Argentine goalkeeper, Emiliano Martínez, left the pitch, he did so with a defiant look in a Dutch direction, shouting his swear-laden message in English to make sure he was not lost.
It was that kind of night and by then it wasn’t over. “We suffered more than we should have,” Messi said. “At 2-0 we had everything under control, we shouldn’t have gone to extra time, let alone penalties.”
The Netherlands, however, had gone to Plan B, throwing long, Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst sent, collected one and then scored a superb free-kick to equalize in the 101st minute. And so now they were there, as if it wasn’t tense enough already.
It was what the Dutch wanted, the advantage apparently their own, but Martínez had saved from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis. Enzo Fernández made it 3-2, opening up the possibility of another absurd change when Luuk de Jong made it 3-3. Lautaro Martínez had the last shot, the opportunity to send them, all distilled. “Ugly”, Lionel Scaloni called him. Fifa has since opened disciplinary proceedings against Argentina.
It’s a long, lonely walk from the halfway line to the penalty spot, or at least it’s supposed to be, but when Lautaro Martínez’s time came he had company. When asked where his thoughts turned as he prepared to take the penalty that could win Argentina in the semi-finals of the World Cup, the striker, as a substitute, said: “Calm and confident”. Yeah, good luck with that. As he left, four Dutch players followed him, led by Denzel Dumfries, and they still surrounded him almost halfway.
The assistant referee intervened, dismissing them, but there were words. De Jong, who had just scored his penalty, had a word. Goalkeeper Andries Noppert had more. Martínez, however, sent his penalty into the net and from the halfway line the Argentine players began to sprint towards him. When they left, and for a while after running, at least four – Leandro Paredes, Gonzalo Montiel, German Pezzella, Nicolás Otamendi – and probably more turned to the Dutch players and celebrated on their faces. Otamendi raised his hands close to his ears, smirking. “I celebrated in their faces because with every penalty one of their players would say things to ours,” he said.
All ran for the left corner and Lautaro Martínez, except for Messi who ran for Emiliano Martínez, lying star-shaped on the grass in the other corner. “He’s a beast and today he answered again; we are grateful,” the captain said. Soon Dumfries was running in the same direction, trying to reach them. He had to be restrained; not only calmed down but dragged out of there. It took three men.
Just another confrontation, just another celebration, and those two things kept clashing. There had been a kicked ball into the Dutch bench and some flying tackles. Messi accused Weghorst of coming and provoking everyone. Martínez was not the first penalty taker followed on the pitch: Ángel Di María came to the rescue of Fernández.
You wouldn’t have seen it on TV but there was also a pitch invader. Like Dumfries, it took many men to subdue him. And in the middle, the referee was “Mateu-Lahozing” again – and yes, that’s a verb, or it should be.
“It’s not easy,” De Jong said. “But he seemed to blow very easily for Argentina.” Messi and Emiliano Martínez thought differently. Messi suggested that it was possible penalties that kept him quiet, while Martínez was unafraid. “He gave everything for them. He gave 10 extra minutes for no reason. He just wanted them to score. He’s useless.”
That’s not all the keeper said, adding: “Van Gaal said: ‘If we go to penalties, we win.’ He should keep his mouth shut.
Messi said it too in his own way, standing in front of the Dutch bench holding his ears. Edgar Davids looked at him through dark glasses. The day before, Louis van Gaal had suggested that Messi doesn’t run much. “He talks about good football but just kicks the ball around for a long time. I don’t like people talking before the game: it’s not part of football,” Messi said.
Yet it was. “There were things there that shouldn’t happen but, well, it’s a world Cup quarter-final,” Messi said.
By the time the players respawned – and it was 3am when they did – they had all returned to this view, the battle was now over. Asked if Argentina had been too aggressive, Nathan Aké replied: “No, no, it shows how much they wanted to win the game; we wanted the same. That’s where the emotion comes in and the combat comes in, it’s just part of that, and we get it.
The Manchester City player smiled, unable to answer why Messi hadn’t been booked for a clear handball and regarding the final celebration he conceded: “Maybe out of emotion you do stuff – I don’t don’t think you can be too critical.”
They had been at “1,000 revolutions,” Pezzella said. “It’s a World Cup, there are a lot of issues, it’s hard. Everyone wants to win: the players on the bench, the staff. And you see that,” De Jong said.
If Messi had suggested that these are things that shouldn’t happen, despite all the moralizing, that helped make it more of an event. It may also have been good for Argentina, a team forged in struggle, all the stronger for suffering. They had won that way too. Messi interrupted a post-match interview to shout: ‘What do you look silly. People in the tunnel think Weghorst was waiting to suggest swapping shirts and you could hear him say he wanted to shake hands, but between the language barrier and the fact that it had already gone too far, that did not happen like this, Lautaro Martínez and Sergio Agüero among those who intervened. Lisandro Martínez finished it off, eventually heading to the locker room saying, “We’re more of a team.”