BUENOS AIRES — I have never felt the release of so much pent-up energy as I did when thousands of Argentinians exulted in the stoppage-time goal bent by prodigal son Lionel Messi into the far post past Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi at the Plaza San Martin on Saturday afternoon. For the first 90 minutes, chance after chance went errantly off target, and the tension built up as Iran extended the draw from the first half into the second.
The Albiceleste would end up getting 19 shots in the match, and tested Haghighi throughout with nine chances on net. The first big groan from the partisan crowd came as the keeper blocked Messi’s shot 11 minutes into the match. Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Marcos Rojo, and Ezequiel Garay tested Iran in the next 15 minutes, as the crowd vibrated with lust for a goal to go ahead.
Soon after, Messi would see one shot blocked and another sail high over the crossbar. Iran was on its heels, yet still holding firm enough to preserve the goalless draw. Ehsan Hajsafi would shoot wide of the net in the waning minutes of the first half, and the crowd had little to relax about as the intermission commenced.
Five minutes into the second half, Pablo Zabaleta missed the top left corner of the net, and the sense of doom started to wash over the audience assembled in the plaza watching the match on the big screen. Javad Nekounam was shown the yellow card for his challenge soon afterward, but Argentina could do little with the free kick.
Cigarette smoke wafted over the crowd as the spectators sought to relieve some of the tension. Aguero came close again, missing to the opposite side of the net two minutes later, and then Iran nearly went improbably ahead on the counterattack as Reza Ghoochanneijhad’s header was wrapped up by Sergio Romero in the Argentine goal.
Garay would miss again on a header from di Maria’s cross three minutes later, and with 25 minutes left to play the match was fully in doubt. It was a scary proposition… how would the crowd react to a draw, I wondered?
Di Maria saw a shot blocked, then Messi saw his shot go wide, as the first hour wrapped up in Belo Horizonte. The next ten minutes belonged to Iran, as they intercepted one lazy pass after another to set up the best chances of their afternoon. Yet Romero and the Argentine defense held firm, and soon thereafter Iranian midfielder Masoud Shojaei was shown another yellow card for his challenge on di Maria.
Seemingly everyone was trying to get that elusive goal for Argentina, and the crowd in the Plaza San Martin was mimicking the heavily Argentine crowd in Belo Horizonte as they chanted and poured their support vicariously toward La Seleccion.
Through 90 minutes, the tension remained. Then Messi received a pass, moved the ball to his left foot, and drilled a ball expertly for the far corner that Haghighi had no chance to save. Delirium ensued as the crowd in Buenos Aires hugged and jostled one another in celebration. A few minutes later, after di Maria was substituted for Lucas Biglia and Iran failed to come anywhere near an equalizer, Serbian referee Milorad Mazic blew the whistle for full time and Argentina was through to the knockout stage.
The controversy will ensue, however, as Mazic did not award a penalty to Iran. Argentina coach Carlos Quieroz acknowledged as much in his post-match press conference. “I hope they don’t punish me, but I’m telling the truth: It was a penalty,” Queiroz said, stressing that Mazic had a clear view. “The referee played a role in this game. Messi was great, he scored the winning goal. The referee, I’m sorry to say, was not.”
Yet whatever the underlying intrigue, the fact remains that Argentina are through from Group F with a match to spare. And the crowd at Plaza San Martin had no qualms about Mazic in the moment, merely joy at Messi’s ability to turn around a precipitous situation yet again for the Albiceleste. After being pilloried so long for his long association with Catalunya rather than his native Rosario, the four-time FIFA World Player of the Year has finally started to make his mark for his national team in 2014. Viva Messi, y viva Argentina indeed…