Africa: FT World Cup 2018 - Live From Russia - Messi vs Iceland

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Soccer ball.

I don't think my fanatical appreciation of Lionel Messi appears as a surprise to anyone in my immediate life at this point. When it comes to athletes, I have a high level of respect for plenty, but only a couple would really make me feel some type of way if I met them in real life. The list goes Lionel Messi, Serena Williams, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who I actually got to see him during the Mexico 🇲🇽 vs Germany 🇩🇪 game, and lost it for a good 30 seconds).

Like many football fans, i've been in awe of Messi since he was 17-18, breaking onto the scene with a then, Ronaldinho-led Barcelona squad after a ridiculously dominant U-17 World Cup performance with Argentina. I've watched his squad number change from 30, to 19, to the eventual legendary 10 he now effortlessly dons today. I've watched him take the torch from Ronaldinho and grow into the best player in the world, gifting two separate coaches Treble honors with the Catalan club (Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique). I even have gotten to witness him live during a football trip of my own to Barcelona with The Ohio State University's Men's Soccer team in 2010. But June 16th 2018 would mark my first time seeing Messi in live action for his nation Argentina. Admittedly, being a childhood Brazil 🇧🇷 fan, I more or less loathe Argentina 🇦🇷. I am in no way a stranger to rooting against them, but am definitely unfamiliar with the notion of rooting for them. Tel est le pouvoir de Lionel Messi. Similar to LeBron James in the NBA Finals, knowing the battle that lies ahead of him whilst considering who is at his side going to battle with him, these GOAT-level players are enjoying a certain level of empathy they may never have received until this unique juncture in their respective careers.

"Oh lawd I can't wait to see Messi embarrass someone today" I thought at breakfast. 2010 feels like so long ago, and I was too hype to see Messi boss the game in only a manner he knows how (more on this shortly). Who would his victims be you ask? Iceland. Iceland 🇮🇸are definitely a nation that are just happy to have been a part of the tournament, but similar to South Korea 🇰🇷, they were about to embark on a World Cup group stage performance from both players and fans that would earn them much deserved respect in the footballing world. Watching the team warm up, one thing was clear to me. Argentina will not have it easy. From the blow of the first whistle, everyone and their mum could see Iceland were not only up for the fight, they were prepared for it. Their tactics seemed to be relentless pressure supported by the tactical acumen and maturity to surround Lionel with multiple bodies in the midfield, while allowing him to find his teammates who were then placed in situations where they were being dared to be the decisive ones instead of Messi. Definitely a gamble, but a rewarding one if your team possesses the fitness and discipline to carry this out for 90 minutes.

Argentina struck early in the game through Sergio "Kun" Aguero in the 19th minute. Even though La Albiceleste were 1-0 up, there was a certain calm amongst the Icelandic players. They didn't panic or abandon their tactics and were rewarded with an equalizing goal in the 23rd, within the infamous "first five minutes" after a team scored a goal but is the most prone to mistakes due to a momentary lapse in focus. Iceland striker Finnbogason found himself in the right place and the right time in Argentina's box to tuck in Iceland's first ever World Cup goal at the expense of Messi and Co. As you all know by now, both teams went into the break level and Messi once again failed to convert a potential game winning penalty kick, something he has done 4 out the last 7 times he has attempted a pk for club or country. The rest of the game would go on to be an all too similar narrative for Argentina during the Messi era as none of his teammates looked to be able to conjure up genuine scoring chances in a match that begged them to. Iceland ended with a tie, a much deserved one at that, and Argentina were already thrust on the back foot for the tournament. After all was said and done during the matchday, two things really stood out to your boy.

One. This Messi guy really is a genius. By far the smartest footballer I have witnessed play. Yes you can see this when you watch his matches on television, but the experience is heightened in live time. Even in a game where he may have let down a lot of spoiled Argentinian fans (yeah I said it), he was still playing at a speed and frequency separate from everyone else on the pitch, including his teammates. Which is why I think Portugal have done a much better job supporting their own GOAT Cristiano Ronaldo in my opinion. It was pretty breathtaking watching a player who was quadruply marked at times, continue to lose defenders and create space and opportunities for himself and teammates. Even those in Spartak Stadium who were rooting against him were given plenty of moments where their trolling was legitimately replaced with a gasp at something Messi did to impact the game. This leads me to my second thing that stood out to me.

My fellow Brazil fans. Why were there Brazil fans at this match between Argentina and Iceland you ask? Because that's how deep the rivalry goes. Yeah yeah I know El Clasico turns everyone on these days, but Brazil vs Argentina is my favorite in football, only further confirmed today. Brazil fans are fully aware of Argentina's seeming and recent propensity to choke in international competition and were genuinely excited at the chance embarrassment of Argentina during their tournament opener. For the 90 minutes in their entirety, the Brazilians taunted Messi and the stadium full of Argentina fans after every time he lost the ball or one of his teammates failed to do anything with it once Messi passed it to them. Iceland may have gotten the result, but no one left Spartak happier than the Brazilians.

Overall, a Messi goal would have been great, but I was more than satisfied with the match, having gotten to witness with my brother and family in what was our second out of six games scheduled to be seen live in Moscow. Thank you Iceland for the performance and the Thunder Clap. Onto the next one!

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