16 seconds of magic from Messi leaves the world of football with an immortal memory

THE TIMER showed 16 seconds. The time it took Lionel Messi, ambling near the touchline, to leave his man-marker aside, collect the ball, gallop down the right flank, escape the tugging arms of defender Josko Gvardiol, then tease, twitch, torment and embarrass him, to conceive the purest of cut-back assists to Julian Alvarez for a simple finish.

Those 16 seconds that would live on immortally in the minds of football fans, sporting fans — one need not be a Messi or Argentina or even a football fan to admire that piece of singular genius — encapsulated the essence of Messi in the World Cup. In that span shone the many personas of Messi, the athlete and the artist, the thinker and the dreamer, the dancer and the schemer. In those 16 seconds is contained a miniature of what makes Messi so special, what makes his genius endure.

It was Argentina’s third goal late Tuesday in a 3-0 semi-final win over Croatia. By then, Luka Modric and his hardy mates, known as a goal-shy team, were already up against it with a little more than 20 minutes left. Messi himself had opened the scoring from a contentious penalty, awarded against the run of play as the Balkans dominated the early exchanges. Alvarez made it 2-0 running half the length of the pitch with the ball on a lightning counter-attack from a Croatian corner.

But the third goal is what will be etched in the minds of those lucky enough to watch it.

The moment just burst forth. No whiff of danger hung. Messi was wandering near the half-line, sneaking away from Mislav Orisic. The latter let him be. For there was Gvardiol in front of him, just 20, energetic and enthusiastic, technical and tenacious. Then, in the wink of an eye, Messi exploded. Gvardiol stuck his left foot out. He wanted to nip the danger from blooming. He might have watched, read, heard of the wizard’s sleight of left foot. He wanted to leave nothing to chance. But now, he lived through what he might have just watched, read or heard. The immeasurable genius of Messi.

Perhaps, years later, Gvardiol would recall this moment as the one that gave him a first-hand account of Messi’s mastery, an experience as much as an education.

As Messi took off in a burst of explosive speed, so did Gvardiol. He ran across him, as Messi looked to cut infield. But then, Messi used Gvardiol’s own legs to deflect the ball away from him. An intentional dab onto his left leg imbalanced Gvardiol. Messi tore in, like a teenaged long-haired, whirling dervish. The masked Croatian defender would gather his bearings and resume his futile pursuit. He succeeded in making Messi drift away from goal and almost into the goal-line. A nudge on his back pushed him further outside the box.

Perhaps, he should not have. For Messi found some wriggle room, a breath of fresh air, a few inches more of space to work with. That moment, Messi swapped his athlete’s boots for a dancer’s feet. He veered a fraction away, stopped, dropped his shoulder and created enough space so that Gvardiol would stick out his left leg in the hope that he could steal the ball from Messi’s feet.

How delusional it turned out to be.

Messi creates illusions of hope in the heads of defenders, as though he has access to how their mind works. So Messi twisted to his left, played the ball around him, then paused again so that Gvardiol over-ran him, swayed to his right a touch and flapped the perfect cut-back for Alvarez.

Gvardiol looked passively into the skies. There was not much he could have done. He had just experienced what several generations of defenders have. That wretched feeling of powerlessness, of disillusionment. This moment could come to haunt him for years, and could pop up in his nightmares. That’s what Messi does to defenders — he not just defeats them, he devastates them. For the rest of the game, Gvardiol roamed like a ghost on the pitch.

Messi’s celebrations were quiet. But a sense of fulfilment twinkled in his eyes as he walked back to the half-line. He soaked in the applause, waved at his admirers, that is the entire stadium, and gazed skywards — a wink at his grandmother to whom he dedicates every goal he scores.

After the game, he ran with his teammates to the enclosure of Argentina’s fans and danced and leapt in ecstasy. They danced and sang, too: “Muchachos, ahora nos volvimos a ilusionar (Boys, we have hope again!)”, a song by Argentine nine-piece band La Moscas.

That assist of Messi would perhaps be more remembered than his own penalty-goal or Alvarez’s own ersatz version of the Diego Maradona solo goal against England in 1986. Not just because Messi assisted, but because of the way he hatched the assist. What is impossible for most is ludicrously simple for him.

After two decades and 1,000-plus appearances, after scoring every kind of goal and manufacturing every variety of assist, Messi still marvels, finds different ways and means to embellish the game, different ways to thrill and mesmerise, different paths to redefine the game he has already redefined.

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Now will he wrap up his career, fulfil his destiny with the World Cup Sunday? The wrong answer would neither stain his greatness nor blight this tournament. Already, this has been his best World Cup, one full of Messi moments – and those 16 seconds of explosive brilliance, a moment of footballing immortality.

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