LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi and Argentina survived one of the wildest games of the 2022 World Cup in a penalty shootout. Emi Martinez sprung to his right, then to his left, for majestic saves. Messi converted to give Argentina the shootout lead, and from there, unlike in regulation, the Argentines never looked back.
They blew a 2-0 advantage in the final 20 minutes of regulation. The Netherlands conjured a master set piece goal in the 11th minute of second-half stoppage time to send the game to extra time, and eventually penalties.
From the spot, Argentina began with perfection. It led 2-0 and 3-1. It threatened to blow yet another lead when Enzo Fernandez pulled his attempt wide. But Lautaro Martinez converted in the clutch. Emi Martinez, the heroic goalkeeper, fell to the ground in relief. Messi was lifted into the air by teammates.
But before the penalty shootout, for over an hour, the story of Friday’s game was a Messi pass. It was his 34th-minute ascent to another planet. He glanced up and saw six orange jerseys impeding him. So he toggled to a bird’s-eye view. He peered down from on high and picked out an extraterrestrial ball, through four Dutchmen and onto the foot of a teammate, for a 1-0 lead.
He later converted a 73rd-minute penalty. He darted toward his adoring fans and spread his arms as his teammates spilled onto the field. He, and they, were up 2-0 and cruising into the semis.
But then disaster struck. The Dutch threw on Weghorst, and began pumping long balls into his feet and chest and onto his head. It became clear rather quickly that Argentina couldn’t cope.
Weghorst scored the first with a trademark header. Argentina, suddenly, was barely hanging on.
The game became an utter mess, replete with yellow cards and ruckuses. Much of the madness was by Argentina’s design. And until the final minute of stoppage time, it was helping.
The stroke of Dutch genius that nearly ended Messi’s World Cup career started at a standstill. It was the 101st minute of an increasingly frantic quarterfinal here at the Lusail Stadium, shortly after a controversial foul. Argentina had a 2-1 lead and one foot in the semis, but the Netherlands had a dangerous free kick that they absolutely had to score. And they did, just like Argentina had earlier, with a pass that not a soul saw coming.
The undoing began with an overzealous barge by Germán Pezzella into the back of Weghorst. It was Holland’s second free kick in such a position, just wide of center, 25 yards out. The Dutch had smashed the first into the wall. All of Argentina readied for a similar attempt. And Teun Koopmeiners seemed to step to the ball to do exactly that.
But instead, he slotted a brilliant pass to Weghorst, and executed a play that the Dutch had cooked up on the training ground.
It was eerily similar to a play that Argentina had used against England to earn a 2-2 tie (and eventually win on penalties) at the 1998 World Cup.
It was a preconceived answer to Messi’s genius, the collective brilliance to match his individual brilliance. Only the Netherlands couldn’t carry that same energy into extra time and after both teams went scoreless in the added 30 minutes it was time for Emi Martinez to do his thing.
La Albiceleste will play Croatia on Tuesday. And their fans are overjoyed by that. Around 8:40 p.m. here, with 80 minutes until kickoff, many gathered around phones and media-tribune monitors to watch their archrivals, Brazil, duel Croatia from the penalty spot. When Marquinhos struck the post and Brazil lost, the blue-and-white-clad acolytes erupted. Hundreds, perhaps thousands who’d already gathered behind one goal soon broke into song. The path was clear.
Outside the Lusail Stadium, TV reporters went live to Argentina in shock: “Brasil está fuera de Copa del Mundo.” Brazil is out of the World Cup.
They’ll conclude the night by saying: Argentina is very much alive and two steps from Messi’s elusive glory.