July 13th, 2014. The Maracaña Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As football’s biggest spectacle drew agonisingly closer to a penalty shootout, Argentine hearts were shattered.
Some excellent play down the left from André Schürlle allowed him to play a perfect ball across the weary opposition defence in to the onrushing substitute Mario Götze.
As soon as the young attacking midfielder – who was brought on as a substitute with only two minutes of regulation time remaining – expertly controlled the ball on his chest, time seemed to stand still, but before Argentinean goalkeeper Sergio Romero could further narrow the angle, he connected with a sumptuous left footed volley to send the ball across the face and in to the back of the net.
When the German players ceased celebrating and got back in position, there were only five minutes left to play, and suddenly Argentina were left regretting there missed chances.
One in particular from clinical centre – forward Gonzalo Higuaín, who, when a chance opened up for him in the first half following a careless header from German midfielder Toni Kroos, seemed to panic, shot early and horrendously dragged the ball wide of the post. This would not be the last time Higuaín missed a big chance in a final for his national side.
However, in what seemed like a final twist to the tale, all was not lost for Argentina. In the second minute of stoppage time, virtually the last kick of the game, they were awarded a free kick approximately 30 yards from goal.
With German fans looking on anxiously from all corners of globe, one can only imagine their worry and desperation as they saw Lionel Messi step up to the plate.
As over one billion people looked on through their television sets, holding their breath, he strode up to the ball and… with the weight of a nation on his shoulders… fired the ball high over the bar and in to the stands.
Soon after, the final whistle blew, thus confirming Germany as champions for a fourth time, and Argentina as runners–up for three.
The following two years would see Messi lead Argentina to both the 2015 Copa América and the 2016 Copa América Centenario final. On both occasions, a determined Chile held them to a goalless draw, and then beat them on penalties.
Again, Gonzalo Higuaín missed a big chance in each game, and rose to even further notoriety when he missed his penalty in the 2015 shootout.
In the aftermath of these three lost finals, many began to question whether or not Messi is able to perform for Argentina when it matters most.
Despite a superb showing in the world cup group stage, his performances in the knockout stages pale in comparison when you think back to Maradona leaving Terry Butcher in his wake (twice) – along with three other English outfield players – before rounding Peter Shilton and propelling Argentina in to the semi-finals, and to eventual champions.
Despite the obvious multitudes of talent in this current Argentinean squad, they would not be travelling to the world cup were it not for their all time top goalscorer.
For the final match of South American qualifying, they travelled to Ecuador needing a win. After 38 seconds, the unthinkable happened. Ecuador took the lead and now the pressure was really on.
Having got off to the worst possible start, and again having the weight of an entire nation on his shoulders, Lionel Messi scored a hat–trick to secure a 1-3 Argentina success and book their place in Russia.
With Messi turning 31 days after the tournament ends, this is, realistically, his last chance to put to bed those thoughts of Diego Maradona hoisting the Jules Rimet trophy high above his head, and lead Argentina to world cup glory.