The moment Lionel Messi proved the Argentina shirt means as much to him as it did Maradona

Messi begins to channel the spirit of Maradona in search of World Cup glory - Mohamed Messara/Shutterstock
Messi begins to channel the spirit of Maradona in search of World Cup glory - Mohamed Messara/Shutterstock

"We love Messi, but we are Maradona," said Samantha Rodriguez, one of four Argentina fans, with a hand each on a large black holdall being hauled down an escalator at the metro en route to the Lusail Stadium.

Inside the bag, was a hamper of food, a big bottle of cola which may or may not have contained rum, and a folded up 15ft flag of Maradona's face. Presumably there were no issues with stadium security as, three hours later, the flag was proudly in place near the corner flag.

By kick-off, there were at least 10 massive poster tributes to the man who died two years and a day ago. In contrast, there had been just two obvious flags bigging up Messi, one of his face. In this do or die fixture for Argentina at a World Cup, it was the man so sorely missed – rather than the best player in the world for much of the last 15 years – who still just about had top billing.

The figure of Diego Maradona looms large in Argentina's World Cup legacy - Juan Mabromata/AFP
The figure of Diego Maradona looms large in Argentina's World Cup legacy - Juan Mabromata/AFP

"You have to understand," added Rodriguez, one of tens of thousands who arrived early. "We are here to honour Maradona as we feel his presence. Hopefully Messi is feeling him too because we need them both tonight."

He certainly felt something after 64 minutes. The experts have always said Messi has never seemed all that bothered about whether he is loved in quite the same way as Maradona back home.

Descriptions of him as a rather cold fish match with his aloof on-field presence, an ability to ensure his heart is never pounding at a thousand miles an hour, allowing such clear-thinking when it matters most. But it was the 30 seconds or so after Messi struck his unerring low left footed effort home which his blood can just as hot as the No 10 before him.

As the stadium erupted, Argentina's tournament finally kick-started after a match and a half, Messi shouted "Vamos" and then paused for at least 10 more seconds to take in the crowd erupting. He blew two or three kisses and then just watched. He has finally learnt to milk to the crowd – just as Maradona once did. This was another milestone to prove the blue and white shirt means just as much to him as it did to the dearly missed No 10.

Messi soaked up the moment following his opening goal for Argentina - Robbie Jay Barratt/Getty Images
Messi soaked up the moment following his opening goal for Argentina - Robbie Jay Barratt/Getty Images

That new-found confidence to wear his heart on his sleave had been on display in a stirring speech he had delivered last year, prior to a historic victory over Brazil in the 2021 Copa America final. Angel Di Maria described how Messi "lost his mind" that day.

At the Lusail Stadium on Saturday, no raging speech, but he found other ways to inspire. In the first half, he had played a peripheral figure in an advanced role. The Mexicans dealt with him in much the same way as they Saudi Arabia had done in the opening match.

But at the age of 35, he is demonstrating leadership was needed to snap his teammates out of their nervousness. He dropped deep, started cajoling his teammates more, and the inevitable happened. A glorious strike from Messi, with the cherry on the cake, a lovely curling effort from Enzo Fernandez. Argentina have arrived and how you could hear the 70,000 or so party.

The atmosphere at the Lusail Stadium was electrified by Argentina's win - Robbie Jay Barratt/Getty Images
The atmosphere at the Lusail Stadium was electrified by Argentina's win - Robbie Jay Barratt/Getty Images

The most striking thing about being at this World Cup is seven of the eight brand new venues are soon to be virtual museum pieces. Brand new, super hi-tech, in the middle of nowhere, and built in the most controversial of circumstances. But, thanks to the South Americans over the past week, the Lusail Stadium has been brought to life.

The Argentinians, so desperate for a result, had arrived in their tens of thousands four hours from kick off. There is a bittersweet feeling for the Argentinians without Maradona. They had gathered at Doha’s historic Souq Waqif market on Friday to honour his sad anniversary.

“We miss him too much. He was always there for us,” 64-year-old Julio Valsi said. “But we can still feel him. I’m sure he will be looking over the national team from wherever he is. We need him to help us right now.”

No better time for Messi to show he is ready to wear the crown.