Argentina and the Thrill of the Last-Minute Scramble

Sports

Argentina and the Thrill of the Last-Minute Scramble

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

T

he last effort before a looming deadline is truly magical. It’s when desperation turns into inspiration, madness leads to miracles, and dreams sometimes come true. On the final match day of Group D in the World Cup, staring down the barrel at an ignominious first-round exit, former tournament favourites Argentina found themselves possessed by the muse of last-minute inspiration, and, as they have promised but failed to do until last night, put on a performance that was not only crucial but magical.

Serendipity had its part to play, of course, as it does with any great sporting story. Coming into the game against Nigeria placed third in their group, Argentina needed nothing less than a win to advance to the next stage. The referee’s decision to not award a second penalty to Nigeria, after an earlier penalty had already yielded a goal for the Africans, was that serendipitous moment for La Albiceleste last night. But that does not take away from the fact that this was Argentina’s final opportunity to live up to their potential at football’s grandest stage, and they played like a team aware of that fact.

Sport is full of stories of famous last-ditch efforts. Under the canny stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United made a habit of crushing opponents’ dreams with fatal stoppage-time goals, which came to be known as “Fergie Time”. In cricket, the epic Dravid-Laxman partnership against Australia at Eden Gardens came on the heels of an abject collapse of the batting line-up – a famous last stand if there ever was one. The strongest steel is forged when the crucible burns hottest, and it’s the volatile cocktail of high pressure, survival instinct, and shaky self-confidence that leads to moments of pure genius on the field.

It’s not just sport. Ask any writer, and they’ll have a story of a last-minute scramble to meet a deadline that resulted in some of their best work. In fact, I’m fairly certain we’ve all felt the rush of last-minute magic when we were students. Come exam season, school and college libraries that resembled ghost towns would look like buzzing beehives, brimming with worker bees packed into cubicles trying to cram in a semester’s worth of learning in a couple of weeks. When that failed, we resorted to burning the midnight oil in the ’90s version of Netflix & Chill, Textbooks & Will. It was last-minute inspiration that got me through three years of high-school chemistry, and I like to think I was possessed by the same muse as Lionel Messi was last night.

Despite a series of confidence-shattering misses from Gonzalo Higuain as the clock ticked down to their extinction, Argentina kept at it. And then, with only minutes before time ran out, deliverance.

Goalless until this game, Messi broke the jinx with signature grace. Right from the first whistle, he hustled harder than he has in this tournament, threatening to pierce the Nigerian defence. When he finally did, it was to collect a looping overhead ball with a soft, splendid first touch, push it into position with a deft second, and finish it off with a light-footed, calm, composed goal, which sent Diego Maradona, watching from the stands, into ecstasy. Messi didn’t let up the entire game, coming close to scoring a second goal when he hit the post with a free kick. He also rallied the side, giving them what looked to be a rousing speech in the tunnel and led from the front in word and deed.

lionel messi

A shocking draw against Iceland and a humbling defeat to Croatia made it look like their Russian campaign would come to an embarrassing end

Image Credits: Getty Images

The Nigerian equaliser would have been enough to keep Argentina out of the next round, but as if often the case when completing a project at the last minute, they didn’t stop until the job was done. Despite a series of confidence-shattering misses from Gonzalo Higuain as the clock ticked down to their extinction, Argentina kept at it. And then, with only minutes before time ran out, deliverance. Marcos Rojo finished off a cross with authority and put Argentina ahead at 87 minutes, booking them a ticket to the next round.

It’s been an arduous slog through the group stage for Argentina. A shocking draw against Iceland and a humbling defeat to Croatia made it look like their Russian campaign would come to an embarrassing end. Somehow, just as the doors seemed to be swinging shut on their hopes and dreams, they have managed to slip through. They’ve had their moment of last-minute inspiration, and it saved their skins. For the rest of the World Cup, starting with when they meet France in a clash of titans, they’re going to have to rely on strategy and hard work.

Argentina was living on a prayer, and it’s got them halfway there.

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