Reda Maher

Brazil 360: Maracana the perfect setting as Messi sheds the monkey from his back

Reda Maher

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Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium is an iconic arena for historic battles of titans.

And Argentina are one of those titans, even if they haven’t passed the quarter-finals of the World Cup since 1990. Second favourites on account of a terrifying forward line-up and a kind draw, their fans have travelled in unprecedented numbers, and the expectation is as great as ever in the post-Maradona era.

Lionel Messi is also one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest of all time. But, until tonight, the Barcelona star hadn’t scored a World Cup goal since his 2006 debut. And, for much of this match, his barren patch looked set to continue.

Bosnia-Herzegovina may not be up there with the big boys yet, but in their first ever tournament match as an independent nation, it is fitting they should have been afforded such a glorious amphitheatre on a clear, warm night lit up by the reflection of light on steel and palm. And they fully deserved to run Argentina close: Bosnia were in the ascendant while trailing 1-0, and excellent again when and after they pulled it back to 2-1.


There is a chaos to the Maracana’s beauty, set beneath a maze of overpasses and curling footways, making entry and crowd control anything but straightforward. As such, fans were piling in for hours, with the congestion incessant from the main metro station servicing the ground, a tiny channel merging into the sprawl of paths towards different sides of this huge arena.

Such appalling human traffic resulted inside the press area as journalists scrapped over accreditation passes having been held up in the street for an hour in some cases. Fans and hacks alike had to squeeze through the masses of ticketless photo takers, beer hawkers and scalpers to get somewhere near their entry point. Whoever designed the user-friendly Wembley Stadium and Stade de France needs to give a crash-course in how to make things easier for the public and the professionals.

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The pre-match chaos was well reflected in a match that started ingloriously for Bosnia’s nascent World Cup career – an unfortunate own goal by Sead Kolasinac. Messi meant it, honest.

It looked as if it may be a long night for Bosnia, but they rallied with the spirit we come to expect of Balkan nations, initially drawing Argentina on the counter attack but gaining confidence and taking the game to the South Americans.

The smaller but no less passionate Bosnian support was swelled by a smattering of their Croatian neighbours, showing a brotherly love that has been rekindled since the devastating floods that hit the Balkans. There were plenty of Australian accents heard too, as many coming from Down Under are doubling-up support for the Socceroos with ancestral homelands such as Greece, Italy and, of course, the two former Yugoslav nations.

But Messi was the sole centre of attention before the match, as a middling club season by his elevated standards finally gave him something to prove.

But he had a muted opening to this World Cup. Yes, it was his free-kick that ricocheted off a team-mate and an opponent to beat Asmir Begovic, but for the most part he was running down blind alleys, if with great enthusiasm. It was almost as if he was trying too hard.

He failed to grow into the match, despite being roared on by an Argentine majority crowd. With tens of thousands in Rio for their opening match, there was at least a stand’s worth left disappointed as tickets exchanged hands for upwards of £400 outside the ground.


He wasn’t the only one. Sergio Aguero was toiling somewhat, drawing groans as he fired over from a great position early in the second half.

And, despite trailing at half-time, the Bosnians were now shouting the loudest, testing Sergio Romero time and time again.

Messi’s anonymity was crystallised by a dreadful free-kick sent high into the night sky, drawing groans from those who idolise him.

A group of supporters rallied behind their man, and he rose to the challenge. With a flash of his heels and a zipping drive, he sent Argentina 2-0 up, arguably against the run of play at that point. He hadn't grown into the match so much as crashed head-first.

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Relief enveloped the Maracana. For Messi hadn’t scored in a World Cup since his debut in 2006, having failed to find the net in Germany, although admittedly from a deeper, playmaker role that yielded many assists.

It was a huge moment for him after an odd season for Barca, announcing his arrival at the World Cup, the one trophy absent from a trophy cabinet embarrassing in its riches. Subsequently, he ran at the Bosnia defence like a man possessed, the divine dribbling skill bamboozling his opponents like a light-fingered card shark on the Copacabana.

There is no doubt that Argentina and Messi will need to improve if they are go the distance at this World Cup. And that early performance from the rampant Netherlands has thrown a name into the mix that should never have been discounted.

But psychologically the knowledge that Argentina’s talisman has found his spark again will give them the belief that this could be their year.





Eurosport’s Reda Maher is on location in Brazil for the duration of the 2014 World Cup - follow him on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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