When Lionel Messi retired abruptly from international football after Copa America 2016, having seen his team go down in a major final for the third time in three years, Argentina pleaded with him, made him change his mind. World football would have been poorer without Messi, but the consequences for the country would have been dire. Just how crucial Messi is to the Albiceleste is evident from their qualification campaign for Russia. Before Tuesday, Argentina had played 17 World Cup 2018 qualifying matches. In the eight that Messi missed out due to injury or suspension, his team could collect only seven points. In the nine that Messi played in, Argentina took home 18 points.
Yet Messi’s presence in those nine games couldn’t offset what his absence had done in eight. As they arrived in Ecuador for their last CONMEBOL qualification match, Argentina were facing the ignominy of missing out the World Cup finals for the first time since 1970. For the world and the sport, too, it was a dreadful prospect: Not having the finest player of the generation in the showpiece event. Then on Tuesday night, as they stepped out onto the pitch in the rarefied Andean air of Quito, Argentina made it worse for themselves. A sloppy defence gave the home team a whiff and Romario Ibarra calmly put Ecuador ahead in the 38th second. The unthinkable now seemed inevitable.
This, possibly more than any other moment in his professional career, was when Messi needed to take control. Rising above the mediocrity around him, he scored thrice in the next one hour to seal Argentina’s passage. Along the way, he gave the world another exhibition of what they were in danger of missing out on. However, the biggest favour that Messi, 30, has done is to himself. He has given himself another shot — in all probability, the last — at World Cup glory, one that has continued to elude him, and one that he needs in order to cement his legacy as football’s all-time great.