Lusail, Qatar – Even before the players stepped onto the field for their pre-match warm-up, the seats were full.
A lucky 88,966 people got their hands on the hottest ticket in town.
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They came to see Argentina take on Croatia at the majestic Lusail stadium on Tuesday night. In reality, they came hoping to see another vintage performance from Lionel Messi, the diminutive figure wearing the number 10 on his Argentina jersey.
In this tournament, fans come to Argentina’s games expecting to see Messi deliver — and he did not disappoint.
For the first 30 minutes of the semifinal match, Croatia were the ones controlling the tempo, moving the ball around, trying to break up the Argentinian set-up.
The Albicelestes fans were not as boisterous as in other matches. There was tension in the air, and only hardcore supporters dared to make noise.
This pensiveness was not surprising as Croatia beat the South Americans 3-0 in their 2018 World Cup encounter.
Messi spent most of the first half hour of the match walking around, appearing to be in no rush, his body language not giving much away.
But, just as when Argentina faced Mexico and then against the Netherlands, Messi’s moments of magic were coming.
“We did not start well. Messi did not see a lot of the ball because of the way Croatia started,” said Cristian Rolero, an Argentinian who travelled from Miami to see his hero in action.
“Messi is God. How else do you describe what we saw tonight? Incredible player. There is no other player like him. Never, ever,” he said.
Croatia were in a confident mood looking to reach back-to-back World Cup finals and become the first team since Brazil in 2002 to do so.
But the Argentinian left-footer, who has won the Ballon d’Or seven times, had different plans. On the night that he joined German footballer Lothar Matthaus as joint holder of the record number of World Cup appearances at 25, Messi capped his landmark match with a memorable performance against Croatia.
After Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic fouled Julian Alvarez, Argentina’s all-time record goalscorer stepped forward and coolly dispatched the penalty. It was Messi’s fifth goal in this tournament, and he was not finished. He smelled blood and soon went on the rampage.
Then the chants began and the thousands of Argentina supporters clad in sky blue and white started singing Messi’s name.
Five minutes after scoring the penalty, Messi headed the ball to the lively Alvarez, who went on a mazy run before hitting the back of Croatia’s net.
“There is no player as consistent as Messi. He delivers whenever we need him. He takes responsibility. He shows the world he is the best,” Diego Dib told Al Jazeera.
Comparisons with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo now need to end, Dib said.
“It is not fair or right when people compare him to Ronaldo. What has Ronaldo done in this World Cup? I hope that comparison is now finished for good.”
‘No human being can stop Messi’
The Albicelestes were up 2-0, but their talisman was going to torment the Croats even more. The Croatia team were on the ropes and Messi was in the mood. Their fans were stunned. They sat in silence and could only watch in awe as the Paris Saint-Germain forward tore apart their backline.
Messi’s legs might be slowing, but even at 35 he still has one of the fastest football brains, as he showed in a brilliant run and assist for the third goal in the game. He made easy work of Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol, one of the standout defenders of the tournament, before setting up teammate Alvarez for his second score of the night.
“No human being can stop Messi. You can put as many defenders as you want in front of him, he will find a way,” Ricardo Falu told Al Jazeera.
“When other teams see him they give up before the game starts. They know they will lose. He has that impact on other teams,” Falu said before rushing off to join other fans at the entertainment zone outside Lusail Stadium.
When the clock reached 90 minutes, and five minutes of added time was announced, the stadium’s seats were still full. No one was leaving early in case Messi had more in store. But there was to be no more. The Croats were humbled by Messi magic.
“Without Messi, there is no way they [would] have beaten us,” said Jan Maric, a Croatia supporter. “They have the best player in the world. Without him they are very average. We [would] have beat them badly,” he added.
After the final whistle, Argentinian players rushed to their captain, all hugs and high fives. The “little magician” then joined his teammates as they serenaded their loyal fans behind the Croatian goal.
Messi and his team will be back in Lusail on Sunday for the World Cup final, where he hopes to win the only prize still missing from his extensive collection of trophies and titles.