Argentina’s supporters burst into the second round of wild celebrations as the clock ticked towards 1 am local time at Lusail Stadium after beating the Netherlands in a chaotic, dramatic, and sometimes unsavory World Cup quarterfinal.
Argentina’s sense of destiny here in Qatar is acquiring several layers, the first being that Lionel Messi is on a mission to win the one elite trophy that has always eluded his grasp.
And it was sharpened before the game when the songs that have provided the soundtrack to Argentina’s World Cup campaign filled the surroundings of this futuristic arena as Brazil, those bitter historic rivals, went out on penalties to Croatia.
If Argentina’s players and fans celebrated twice, they also effectively had to win this quarter-final twice, squandering a 2-0 lead in the 11th minute of stoppage time before prevailing 4-3 on penalties to meet the World Cup’s very own mentality monsters of Croatia in the semi-final on Tuesday.
The Argentine masses who made up the vast majority of the 88,235 crowds, providing a wall of sound and a splash of color, were silenced momentarily when the unlikely figure of Wout Weghorst, on loan at Besiktas from Burnley and on as a substitute, scored two late goals to send the game into extra time.
When the 35-year-old Messi, in what is surely his final World Cup, looked like he had inspired Argentina to the semi-finals, it came as a huge shock. After brilliantly setting up Nahuel Molina’s goal before halftime, he made it 2-0 from the penalty box in the 73rd minute.
Aston Villa’s keeper Emi Martinez was Argentina’s hero in the penalties, saving the first two Netherlands spot-kicks from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis as the eventual victory margin was 4-3.
It was Argentina’s celebrations that were a combination of relief, pure elation, and a growing sense that this could be their World Cup – particularly after Brazil’s elimination – although they underestimate Croatia at their own peril.
Their fans claimed huge swathes of Lusail Stadium for almost an hour after the game to go through their full songbook long after Argentina’s joyous players had departed the scene.
When they finally left the party only moved outside, the drums and horns still providing a backing track that was going on well into the night.
And all this after a match of many flashpoints that yielded 17 yellow cards plus a red for Dutch defender Denzel Dumfries at the end, the largest number in World Cup history.
This included 15 players plus Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni and his assistant Walter Samuel. Dutch striker Weghorst was booked before he even came on as a substitute.
Aside from this history-making tally, Spanish referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz is commonly regarded as lenient, particularly since he overlooked Messi’s deliberate handball, which resulted in his second yellow card.
Argentina’s players turned away from their celebrations to taunt their stricken, heartbroken Dutch counterparts while verbal clashes followed after the penalties with Messi and Emi Martinez involved.
In other words, all rather eventful and sometimes distasteful. There was no love lost, and this World Cup quarter-final was at times, an eyesore.
It’s all been the efficient Messi who has been at the heart of it, scoring four goals and assisting two of Argentina’s nine goals in the tournament so far. He also has 10 World Cup goals for Argentina, level with Gabriel Batistuta.
Argentina’s journey into the semi-final has echoes of their run to the 1990 World Cup final, which they lost to West Germany.
They were stunned by Cameroon in their opening game in Italy and here they were victims of the tournament’s biggest shock result when they lost to Saudi Arabia at the start of their group.
Messi is a member of this World Cup’s elite at a tournament that has seen Cristiano Ronaldo marginalized by Portugal and Neymar injured and then eliminated by Brazil.
France’s Kylian Mbappe remains but there is now a growing sense that Argentina’s superstar will contest another World Cup final, a chance to atone for the defeat by Germany in 2014.
He may provide the silken genius in this team but it is also mixed with steel that makes Argentina the fiercest of opponents.
This can too often spill over into the kind of skirmishes we saw here, as players from both sides clashed on several occasions, including when Leandro Paredes was lucky to stay on after receiving a yellow card for a poor challenge on Nathan Ake, and then he shot at a Dutch bench enraged by it.
There is no point in caring about Argentina.
Taking the ruthless approach that they believe is suited to winning World Cups, not popularity contests, the two-time champions are heavily favored to reach the sixth final, they’re first since they lost to Germany eight years ago in Rio.
When Argentina failed to achieve the ultimate triumph at the great Brazilian temple of the Maracana back in 2010, Messi was left heartbroken. Now he will aim to complete his career with the final glory at Lusail Stadium on 18 December.