BUENOS AIRES (AFP) – A nation exploded with relief on Tuesday as Lionel Messi single-handedly dragged his Argentina team into next year’s World Cup finals with a spellbinding hat-trick in Quito.
“Messi is E.T. He’s from another planet. He’s not from this world,” Marco Mouras, a 28-year-old Brazilian said in a crowded Buenos Aires bar as Argentinians around him went wild, beer and pizza spilling onto the floor.
Messi gave the world a masterclass of what it would be missing if he didn’t go to Russia 2018, a distinct possibility when Argentina went a goal down inside the first minute of a match they had to win.
A graveyard silence descended on bars, restaurants and homes when Ecuador’s Romario Ibarra struck in the first minute of the game, casting a pall of gloom across Argentina as he scored.
It was proof for the doomsayers that this team was a lost cause. Argentinians had suffered too much during a lacklustre qualification series and this was the last straw.
But Messi burst through the gloom to equalise and then soon scored again to give Argentina the lead.
“2-1 was not enough. We couldn’t be calm,” said Lautaro Gonzalez, 35, celebrating after being put through an emotional wringer by his national team.
Beside him a disbelieving Maximiliano Lacasa proclaimed himself a devotee of “Saint Messi. Thank God we have him.”
Pride in the shirt was restored when Messi completed his hat-trick in the second half. It was time for Argentinians at home to believe again.
Pablo Ramos, 34, could hardly take it in. The team is still a misfiring mess going to the World Cup, he said, “so it’s all suffering.”
Even music yielded to Messi when Irish rockers U2 delayed their concert by almost two hours to allow fans in the La Plata stadium near Buenos Aires time to watch the match on giant screens. When they finally came on stage, they kicked off a giant party.
With seemingly everyone crowded around every available TV set, the streets of Buenos Aires were so empty it seemed like a curfew.
People wore the Argentine shirt in the build-up, but not many. The Argentine public had grown tired of believing in vain.
A win seemed a little too fanciful to most, exasperated by a series of underwhelming performances by the national side.
Only a win would do in Quito, where Argentina hadn’t won since 2001. The nation held its breath.
Nobody here, or anywhere else, wanted to contemplate the unthinkable but very real prospect of Argentina losing.
That would mean next year’s World Cup in Russia would go ahead without Messi, arguably the world’s greatest player.
“It’s complicated, I want the team to be at the World Cup in Russia, but only a miracle can save them. I’m going to pray for them,” said Maria Cordoba, a 64-year-old optician.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and now Argentina will bask in the fact that the “Messiah” will lead them to the World Cup finals.
Team coach Jorge Sampaoli said he had told his players: “Messi doesn’t owe the World Cup to Argentina, football owes the World Cup to Messi.”
“Messi is the best player in history and I’m really excited to be able to be in a group, close to him.”
The main concerns of most Argentinians is the economy and the loss of purchasing power, but the torments of the national team has relegated even that into the background.
The nation yearns for a return to the glory days of 1978 and 1986 when Argentina won the World Cup.
Over to you, Mr Messi.