This was back to bedlam. No longer a game of football, but a fractious brawl where you punched or got punched.
Louis van Gaal, the Dutch theoretician, had long forgotten the football philosophy he championed. And his salvation from a two-goal deficit was Wout Weghorst, a 6 ft 6” bully to jostle the diminutive Argentines. His beast took this game to penalties, but Argentina, somehow, prevailed as Emiliano Martinez summoned his Copa America spirit to stop two penalties.
Argentina again had suffered, each of its matches in this World Cup a rollercoaster ride from the depths of despair to the promise of absolution.
For 75 minutes at the Lusail Stadium, the South Americans, however, were the most secure they ever looked in Qatar. The anxiety from their game was finally missing, as if the pictures of a first-match humbling were slowly getting blurred as new memories of success kept stacking up.
The opening goal again left you spellbound. Lionel Messi looks pudgy and scraggy like Jackie Chan in Karate Kid – the old shaolin master with bags under his eyes. But while the world thinks Messi is sleeping, he is observing and memorising every movement, every subtle change, to pick his moment and unveil his true self.
His five seconds of enlightenment brought in a goal that no one could foresee. Messi’s eyes suddenly lit up and his body twitched to find that long-forgotten pace and the muscle memory of old to dribble past two challenges and play a reverse pass that nutmegged Nathan Ake to reach Nahuel Molina inside the box.
The experienced Virgil van Dijk, too, was scratching his head about the gap that had suddenly opened like an unsuspecting UFO to suck out the Dutch defence. Molina finished by opening his body to place the ball past Andries Noppert.
But Argentina’s play was not always about silken passages. Nicolas Otamendi and Molina were quick to give a young Cody Gapko a few old-fashioned shoves. This was not a game for boys, and Gapko thereafter remained peripheral.
Argentina’s matches in Doha have been highly ritualistic with steady chanting like in a temple filled with vermillion-smeared faces with sweaty bodies jostling to get a better view of the Lord mostly hidden by the 1000 heads ahead.
And their Lord’s goal came after Denzel Dumfries was harshly penalised for a foul on Marcos Acuna. Facing his crazy dancing blue-and-white-clad disciples, Messi was not distracted, scooping it with power to the left of the ‘keeper.
A streaker darting across the field advertising an adult website was quickly apprehended. The Dutch seemed buoyed by the display, while the Argentines were shaken. A glancing header from Weghorst soon made matters a little complex. Argentina was again hanging on to a one-goal lead with seven (+10) minutes to play. Messi was down clutching his chest, cueing his team to waste as much time as possible. He took time to crawl up from the next foul that he drew but Leandro Paredes got booked for a needless challenge on Nathan Ake.
The Argentine then smacked the ball into an already aggrieved Dutch bench, which barged in to avenge and start one of the many skirmishes that was to be the norm for the next half hour of play. (Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz flashed 18 yellow cards and a red, but the game was rarely in his control.)
As Argentina thought it was through, Weghorst’s equaliser came in the 11th minute of the 10 extra minutes added. A training ground move left Argentina befuddled as Teun Koopmeiners’s shallow freekick reached Weghorst, who blasted it past Emi Martinez.
The Dutch now had the Argentines stretched and the four tiny specks of Orange rafts in a sea of blue were bobbing in excitement. But Argentina again was running on Angel di Maria’s fresher legs and Van Dijk was positioned perfectly to deflect away a close-range shot from Lautaro Martinez. The Dutch survived the assault with Noppert and the post keeping it in the game.
But amazing Emi was the hero to emerge from the spot-kicks. He dived to his right to stop Van Dijk, and Messi ambled up to take the next. He rolled his shot in and held up his arms in relief and then passed on a word of encouragement to his goalkeeper.
A charged-up Emiliano dived the other way to save the next from Steven Berghuis, and Paredes made it 2-0 with a powerful finish. Koopmeiners notched the Netherlands’ first with a bullet left footer, but Gonzalo Montiel converted to keep Argentina ahead. Weghorst didn’t miss, but Enzo Fernandez, with a chance to close the game, hit wide to prolong the agony. Luuk de Jong was on target, and Lautaro, unperturbed by the pressure, scored and Argentina finally erupted.