Lionel Messi’s night turned around, and Argentina’s World Cup chances may have improved as well.
Messi, who was ineffective in the first half of last night’s 2-1 victory against Bosnia-Herzegovina, took control 20 minutes into the second half at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium. After more than an hour of waiting for his teammates to provide for him, the Barcelona player took on the opposition himself and showed why much of Argentina’s bid to win a third World Cup rests with him.
The 26-year-old, a four-time World Player of the Year, scored after weaving past several Bosnian defenders in the Group F match. His struggles with the national team -- where he hadn’t scored in a World Cup match for eight years -- were lifted and the predominately Argentinian crowd was, too.
Messi’s free kick in the opening minutes had gone off the leg of a defender and into the Bosnian goal. Substitute Vedad Ibisevic scored a late goal for the losing team, which was making its World Cup debut.
Messi adorns billboards across Argentina as sponsors, including the country’s government, have made the forward a symbol of the team’s efforts to bring the trophy back across the border. Before his 66th-minute goal, which followed an exchange of passes with Gonzalo Higuain, Messi was a frustrated figure as passes went astray and shots missed the target.
“We do have things to improve,” Messi told reporters after being voted man of the match. “It’s not easy to play the first match at the World Cup because of what it means, the anxiety and the nerves.”
Thousands of Argentine fans dressed in light blue and white swamped Rio on the eve of the game. By kickoff, Maracana -- also the venue for the July 13 final -- resembled a stadium in Buenos Aires, with Argentina’s flags draped around the arena and fans cheering wildly.
The atmosphere may have overwhelmed Bosnia. Sead Kolasinac scored the quickest own goal in World Cup history after 2 minutes, 8 seconds. Messi’s free kick from the left was flicked on by Marcos Rojo before striking Kolasinac’s knee to creep beyond goalkeeper Asmir Begovic.
“We scored an own goal in the first minutes,” said Bosnia coach Safet Susic. “When you play Argentina, you have to play well and you also have to have a great deal of luck.”
The goal set Argentina’s fans into a frenzy. It had the opposite effect on their team, which failed to build on the strike and instead allowed an increasingly confident Bosnia back into the game.
Cheered on by the Brazilians in the crowd, Bosnia started to cause problems for Argentina’s experimental five-man defense. Senad Lulic almost tied the game four minutes before halftime with a header that forced Sergio Romero into a diving left-handed save.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella had seen enough. At halftime he made a double substitution, switching to a more conventional four-player defense and bringing on Higuain to aid Messi and Sergio Aguero in attack.
“We were winning, but it seemed to me that we needed something more,” Sabella said. “We thought it was quite flat and we needed to improve to be able to open up a bigger gap.”
The changes didn’t have an immediate effect as Messi continued to struggle. In the 64th minute he ballooned a well-placed free kick over the bar and pulled his shirt to his face in anguish. His luck turned two minutes later.
Messi brought the stadium to its feet when he took a pass from Higuain past a Bosnian defender and slammed a low shot into the area off Begovic’s right-hand post. The goal was the forward’s first World Cup score in 623 minutes of play. He raced toward the fans behind the goal and they responded with a chant: “Come with me, sing with me, Messi’s going to lead us to the Cup.”
Argentina last won the World Cup in 1986 thanks to the exploits of another idol in the country, Diego Maradona. Messi has won Spanish and European titles with Barcelona and broken goalscoring records with the club, which he joined in his early teens.
“I think that Messi is the best player in the world,” Sabella said. “Beyond whatever happens in this World Cup, he’s among the best players in history.”