And it has, time and again, been Messi who has intervened in games to bend them to his will. Since that loss to the Saudis, he said, Argentina has “faced five finals, and been fortunate to win all five.”
Fortunate is one word for it. In the group stage, it was Messi who broke the deadlock against Mexico, just as Argentina’s nerves were shredding, as the specter of humiliation hung heavy over the nation. It was Messi who opened the scoring against Australia in the round of 16. It was Messi who made the first goal and scored the second against the Dutch, and then it was Messi who stepped up and took the first penalty in the shootout.
Against Croatia, too, it was Messi who proved the decisive figure. The cruelty of knockout soccer is that a whole month’s worth of work — more, in fact — can evaporate in a single instant. Croatia’s defining trait, throughout the tournament, has been its control, its composure.
It may not have been the most adventurous, the most thrill-seeking team in Qatar, but it has been disciplined, organized, resolute. It has worn down opponents, held them at bay, trusted that they would make the first mistake. It had done it well enough not only to make it to the semifinal, beating Brazil along the way, but to survive the first half hour of Tuesday’s game with barely a scratch.
Luka Modric, that other generational talent trying to stave off the final curtain, had established his authority over the midfield. His redoubtable cadre of lieutenants — Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, Ivan Perisic — were hurriedly and dutifully putting out what few fires threatened to ignite. Argentina was starting to get that same sinking feeling that plenty of teams face when confronted by Croatia.
But all it takes is a moment. For the first time — in this game, in this tournament, possibly in his life — Modric took his eye off the ball. Rather than coming under his command, it rolled under his feet, squirming out to Enzo Fernández. No matter; Fernández was still deep in his own half. There was no immediately apparent danger.
Modric is so reliable, though, that it had not occurred to anyone that he might err. Josko Gvardiol and Dejan Lovren, Croatia’s central defenders, had drifted apart, attempting to offer him a favorable angle for a pass.