Walking to Stay One Step Ahead

Lionel Messi has figured out how to win matches by moving less than everyone else.
By Ken Early

Lionel Messi moves with the ball during the Argentina–Switzerland World Cup match on July 1, 2014.
Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

SÃO PAULO—It’s coming toward the end of halftime at the Corinthians Arena and the big screen is showing Lionel Messi standing in the tunnel. Like everyone else within a mile radius, Messi can hear Pharrell blasting from the stadium speakers, but he doesn’t look happy.

Javier Mascherano is by his side, talking urgently. Messi gives an absent nod and adjusts his captain’s armband. The other Argentina players look pensive as they file past on their way back to the pitch. What’s been going on back there?

Whatever it was, it doesn’t look like it was much fun. But then neither was the 45 minutes of football that preceded it for Argentina or any of its thousands of supporters.

The power dynamic in that Argentina dressing room has been one of the most gossiped-about themes of the World Cup. The word is that the team is living under the dictatorship of Messi. People say the coach, Alejandro Sabella, is a puppet whose job is to interpret the dictator’s will—a task complicated by the fact that the dictator hardly ever speaks. Rumor has it Sabella communicates with Messi through intermediaries: Mascherano, Fernando Gago, and Sergio Agüero.

Now the team is suffering. Switzerland is fighting hard. The Brazilian fans in the stadium have been mocking their ponderous play. Is Argentina’s World Cup about to end in ignominy?

* * *

Ninety minutes later, Pablo Zabaleta is standing in the mixed zone giving thanks to God.

Zabaleta won the World Youth Championship alongside Lionel Messi in 2005. At that time they both lived in Barcelona, where they “spent three years as friends, going out. … Yes, they were very good times.” Zabaleta knows Messi about as well as anyone in the game.

Yet when he speaks about his old friend after the win over Switzerland, he uses the awed tones a cult member reserves for the leader.

“We know he is our main player, our captain, the best player in the world. This team is playing for him, as we know how important Messi is for this team. We are so lucky to have Messi in Argentina.”

We are so lucky to have Messi in Argentina? Footballers do not usually gush about each other like this, but Zabaleta keeps laying it on thick.

“It’s what we expect from him, always that the best player in the world will make the difference in every game. … Every time we recover the ball we try to pass to him, as he is the best player we have in the team and he will score goals.”

Messi hadn’t actually scored the goal this time, but he had created the winner for Ángel di María with an inspired dribble and pass in the 118th minute. He had just picked up his fourth man-of-the-match award in four World Cup matches. Argentina lives to fight another day. No wonder Zabaleta sounds grateful.

* * *

Messi’s dribble has had the side effect of ending the career of one of football’s greatest managers. Now, Ottmar Hitzfeld is giving the last press conference of his 30-year coaching career.

In the press room, Swiss journalists are complaining that their side only started playing football in the 119th minute, after going 1–0 behind. A fairer reading would be that Hitzfeld’s spoiling tactics were almost a brilliant success.

He reveals what he had told his team before the match: “This can only be done if we’re all together, if we have three or four players around Messi, close to Messi.”

The Swiss had done exactly what Hitzfeld asked. They swarmed around Messi and shut off his angles, and when he looked likely to get free, they kicked him. “Tactically, they put in a monstrous effort,” Zabaleta said.

Of course, if three or four Swiss players were watching Messi, it means that there was space elsewhere on the pitch for Argentina to exploit. But Argentina had not exploited that space, because it seemed that all 10 of their players were watching Messi, too. All of their attacking play was directed through the No. 10, to the exclusion of any other ideas. Every time we recover the ball we try to pass to him, as he is the best player we have in the team and he will score goals.

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