x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Messi and Argentina bring a city plenty of joy

It was a night all of Kolkata would remember for a long time as 75,000 fans watched the Argentine icon in action against Venezuela.

Indian fans were quite clear who was in their hearts.
Indian fans were quite clear who was in their hearts.

For Rohit Mullick, a boy from Kolkata's slums who held Lionel Messi's hand as he walked on to the pitch, it was a night that he will never forget.

The same could be said for more than 75,000 who ignored the Friday afternoon drizzle and stifling heat and humidity to come and cheer Messi and Argentina as they embarked on a fresh start after the Copa America debacle in July.

Given the captain's armband by Alejandro Sabella - the coach who was due to take over the reins at UAE champions Al Jazira before reneging on his contract to take charge of Argentina - Messi was his usual busy self, popping up all over the pitch and testing Rafael Romo in the Venezuelan goal on more than one occasion.

But the goal the crowd craved never came. Instead, they had to be content with a Nicolas Otamendi header from a Messi corner, and the thinnest of margins against a team that finished fourth at the Copa America.

The hype and adulation before the game had to be experienced to be believed.

It was not just the Venezuelans that were ignored, though they cannot have been too thrilled by billboards that featured Messi flanked by his team and the Paraguayans who lost in the final of the Copa America.

Despite the likes of Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria being stars in their own right, the pre-match talk was only about Messi, who had warmed up for this game with two clinically taken goals for Barcelona in a 5-0 defeat of Villarreal on Monday night. When he landed in Kolkata in the early hours of Wednesday morning, there were more than two thousand outside the airport, waving their flags and chanting his name.

Even though he and Javier Mascherano, his Barcelona teammate and predecessor as national team captain, disappeared through a side gate, the turnout spoke of the city's delight at hosting one of the all-time greats.

Kolkata has seen great footballers before, but never when they were at the peak of their careers.

Pele was 37 and long past his best when he came here with the New York Cosmos in 1977, while Diego Maradona visited more than a decade after his retirement.

Zico, the Brazilian legend of the 1970s and '80s, was stunned by the reception he got when he came here as the Japan coach a few years ago, with the cheers far louder than for the home side.

On the field, it was a frustrating evening for Messi and Argentina. Venezuela were missing a few regulars, including Juan Arango, their best-ever player, but a defence superbly marshalled by the imposing Oswaldo Vizcarrondo snuffed out most Argentine threats.

Messi, whose every touch elicited a bone-rattling roar, combined beautifully a couple of times with Di Maria, but with Inter Milan's Ricardo Alvarez and the recalled Lucho Gonzalez subdued in a three-man midfield, Venezuela were more than a match for their illustrious rivals.

They also repeatedly exposed Marcos Rojo's ordinary positioning at left-back. After he slipped once, the Swiss-born Frank Feltscher raced clear. But with Salomon Rondon waiting in the middle, an effort that was neither shot nor cross eased past the post.

Cesar Gonzalez, who had a couple of long-range efforts saved, was impressive, and the pace of Nicolas Fedor and Feltscher discomfited both Otamendi and Martin Demechelis.

With Argentina almost entirely reliant on Messi and Di Maria for creativity, Sabella brought on the hugely promising Javier Pastore and Aguero, but by then the conditions and the artificial pitch had slowed the game's pace.

There was an unprecedented water break midway through the second half, and Otamendi scored soon after, but though he kept probing away, the goal that Messi threatened never came.

Despite the lights going out in the dressing room soon after the game, Sabella, who gave his players six out of 10, was delighted with the support his team received. Of Messi, he said: "In the history of football, such players don't appear very often. He's a phenomenon. Extraordinary. Wherever he plays, people will go to watch."

After two generations of underachievement though, his team is very much a work in progress. Juan Sebastian Veron, 36, and Juan Roman Riquelme, 33, have both been called up for the September friendlies against Brazil, as Sabella searches for the playmaking option that Argentina seek as they look to create a Barcelona-like ensemble for Messi to thrive.

Even an hour after the game, thousands waited patiently outside to catch a glimpse of him as the team made its way to the hotel right next door to the vast 120,000-seater stadium.

Dhaka and another frenetic crowd awaits on Tuesday, but for now, Argentina can look back on a winning start to the Messi-Sabella era.

Mullick and thousands of other impressionable young fans will cherish this memory the rest of their lives.