Whether it was in the rule book or not, Lionel Messi was going to do just about anything to get to the World Cup semifinals.
Soccer fans saw another side to Messi in Argentina’s wild penalty-shootout victory over the Netherlands — a side that can only really come out in the most pressure-filled occasions.
Everyone knows about his outrageous skills, his mesmerizing dribbling ability and his relentless goalscoring. But here he was at Lusail Stadium, scrapping, snarling, taunting.
There’s a street-fighter mentality that is never far from the surface when it comes to Argentina’s national team and it revealed itself against the Dutch in a match that boiled over on numerous occasions.
Messi — fueled by a desire to win soccer’s ultimate prize at likely his last attempt — was right in the middle of it all on Friday.
Not least when, soon after scoring a penalty to put Argentina 2-0 ahead, he stopped in front of the Netherlands dugout and cupped his hands around his ears. It appeared to be a jibe toward outspoken Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal, who said before the game that his team would look to take advantage of Messi’s perceived lack of work rate off the ball.
The gesture mimicked a goal celebration sometimes used by former Argentina playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme, who reportedly had disagreements with Van Gaal when they were both at Barcelona in the early 2000s and had to leave the Catalan club to make a name for himself in Spanish soccer.
At the end of the game, Messi could be seen gesticulating at the 71-year-old Van Gaal and also went face to face with Edgar Davids, a member of the Dutch technical staff.
Messi was one of 17 people — players or coaching staff — to be given a yellow card, which is a record for a World Cup game. He received his booking in the final seconds of regulation time for dissent, though it could have come much earlier when he patted the ball away deliberately with his hand.
Finishing the game with a bloodied and slightly puffy top lip after running into Netherlands defender Jurrien Timber, Messi took aim at Spanish referee Antonio Mateu, saying he was not “up to the standard” and was “very harmful for us,” and also broke off from his post-match interview on the field to shout abuse at Wout Weghorst, the scorer of the Netherlands’ two goals.
“It was a very hard match, I have to say,” Messi said through an interpreter. “From the very beginning, we know it would be this way as we had a big national team in front of us.
“We suffered a lot and we didn’t deserve that. We played the way we had to play.”
It was mayhem at times, notably when the Netherlands bench emptied onto the field after Leandro Paredes smashed the ball toward the dugout from close range. Netherlands defender Virgil van Dijk sprinted up to Paredes and barged him to the ground as a melee unfolded.
Mateu struggled to maintain control of the game. After blowing the fulltime whistle to take the game to extra time, he was immediately confronted by Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni, who got in Mateu’s face and had to be held back by colleagues.
Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez later called the referee “useless.”
Argentina’s players couldn’t help themselves after Lautaro Martinez converted the clinching penalty in the shootout. Having been stood with their arms linked on the halfway line, they broke free and most of the players ran in front of the despondent Dutch players and goaded them. Nicolas Otamendi repeated Messi’s earlier gesture by putting his hands behind his ears.
Call it gamesmanship, call it the dark arts, call it being cynical. Argentina will not care.
The Albiceleste are through to the semifinals and will face Croatia next in what is also likely to be an occasion high on tension and provocation.
Messi is two victories from winning the World Cup and, on this evidence, he cannot be more fired up to achieve it.