Argentina 3 (Higuaín 29′, 59′, Messi 45′ pen) beat Venezuela 0 at El Monumental, crowd ~50,000, 2014 World Cup qualifiers, 22 March 2013.
Walking through the leafy streets of Núñez – an affluent barrio of northern Buenos Aires, uncharacteristically bustling with scruffy football fans on their way home from Argentina’s World Cup qualifier against Venezuela – my mind drifted away from the roundball code. I was thinking about the first time I saw Mark Waugh bat (121 against England in the fifth Ashes Test in 1999) or Michael Clarke slaying a triple century against India in 2012; Chris Judd’s clearance work driving Carlton to victory over the Swannies on the night of the royal wedding in 2011; Roger Federer imperiously dumping Juan Martin Del Potro out of the 2012 Australian Open quarter-finals; Andrew Johns orchestrating Newcastle’s grand final triumph in 2001 or Brad Fittler’s title a year later with the Roosters. In my short time watching sport, I’ve been lucky enough to witness masterpieces by some truly phenomenal, world-class athletes in their pomp. But scouring my memory, it was difficult – impossible, in fact – to recall an individual performance to rival the masterclass Lionel Messi handed Venezuela this night.
Messi is like a pseudo-mythical figure in Argentina; his visage appears on Pepsi bottles and video games and magazine covers that wallpaper newsstands on every street corner; his face a lingering, ubiquitous presence in the porteño milieu, like the haunting eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckelburg in The Great Gatsby. He’s such a pervasive presence in daily life, that seeing the great man in the flesh – all five foot seven of him – is a little bit surreal. Watching him cut the Venezuelan defence to ribbons, dance between defenders, control the ball like a yo-yo strung to his boot, I got the feeling this is what it must have been like to watch Bradman bat – a man in a different class to his contemporaries.
The city of Buenos Aires shuts down for games involving La Albiceleste. As our taxi to the ground struggled up a Nueve de Julio choked with Friday afternoon peak hour traffic, corner restos and cafes were already brimming, while thousands more made the pilgrimage to the site of the 1978 Mundial success. It didn’t take long to discover the stadium is El Monumental not only by name, but nature – a confusing maze of police barricades and partitions for away fans and media snaked its way through the streets, obfuscating our path to the Sivori end populares, where we had scalped a ticket for 220 pesos. Arriving just in time for the national anthems, myself and my two amigos – from France and Italy respectively, giving my limited Spanish some well-needed exercise – squeezed into a spot on the stairs (needless to say, OH&S laws haven’t yet found their way to South America), amidst the ocean of sky-blue-and-white tops with ‘Messi 10’ inscribed on the back.
Our vantage point was directly behind the goals and near enough to the back of the terrace, a near perfect reproduction of my usual possie in Row Z of Bay 23 at the SFS (a small homage to the Harbour City a few hours before Sydney locked horns with Wanderers in the third Sydney Derby, which ended 1-all). The calibre of play on display here was a world away from the A-League. A sedate crowd watched in awe as Messi picked the eyes out of a manful Venezuelan outfit, teeing up Gonzalo Higuaín on the half hour before converting a penalty of his own just before the break. Higuaín completed a brace before being substituted in the second stanza to a warm ovation; sure, his two clinical finishes deserved a nod, but the crowd may as well have sung Messi’s name, as he single-handedly manufactured both chances. Leo‘s primary support act was Santa Fe compadre Javier Mascherano, the bulldog mediocampista in a shirt two sizes too big for him, who demoralised the visitors by stealing possession every time they managed to wrest the ball from the Argentine magician wearing número diez.
Argentina’s domination was so total that it flattened the atmosphere somewhat. After Argentina’s third goal, the final 30 minutes was a half-hearted kick-around between two teams running out the clock; the crowd’s silence punctuated only by applause for substitutions or yelling “puto” at the Venezuelans as they passed between themselves. The strong contingent of 3,000 travelling supporters did their best to rouse their team, but any noise was lost in the monolithic Monumental. The low-key ambience – a marked contrast to the ferociously parochial club scene in Argentina – puts Australia’s battle to generate atmosphere at national team games sharply into perspective.
The 3-0 win maintains Argentina’s grip on the Conmebol qualifiers for Brazil, made easier by the absence of their great rivals who enter automatically as hosts, but also by the even-handed stewardship of low-profile coach Alejandro Sabella, who provides welcome relief from the rarely levelheaded if always entertaining Diego Maradona, who so dramatically steered La Selección through the 2010 campaign. Sabella – a small, greying man whose receding hairline makes him look more like an accountant than a manager – will take Argentina to Rio next year in rude health, every chance to wrap their hands around the World Cup trophy. And if Messi’s miniature Adidas boots shuffle across the winners’ podium in the Maracanã next July, then he will join Pelé and Maradona in the Brandman-esque category of footballer.
As it is, I’ll always remember the night I saw Messi give Venezuela an absolute bath.