Lionel Messi is two wins away from the elusive World Cup trophy.
The Argentinian maestro has won trophies ranging from the Champions League to La Liga and Copa America.
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But, at 35, this is most likely his final World Cup and the last opportunity to win the most coveted trophy in football. Is the pressure to win the elusive trophy getting to the usually mild-mannered forward?
Messi at the heart of the ‘Battle of Lusail’
The quarterfinal between the Netherlands and Argentina at the Lusail Stadium was a fractious affair rife with refereeing controversies and heated altercations that resulted in 17 yellow cards.
However, most surprising was the sight of Messi at the centre of many of the fracas, openly mocking, taunting and arguing with Dutch players even after the final whistle had blown.
Messi assisted Argentina’s first goal for Nahuel Molina and then scored a second from the penalty spot. Despite Argentina taking a 2-0 lead, Messi ran over to the Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal and assistant manager Edgar Davids and celebrated his goal by cupping his ears towards them.
The celebration appears to be a nod to former Argentian midfielder Juan Román Riquelme who van Gaal had frequently left out of the Barcelona team in the 2002-2003 season.
21 years on from the famous Topo Gigio celebration from Juan Román Riquelme pic.twitter.com/W6AuUpDmoL
— Boca in English | Podcast 🏆 (@CABJ_English) April 8, 2022
The match reached a fever pitch after the Netherlands clawed a goal back. In the 88th minute, Leandro Paredes booted the ball towards the Dutch dugout and Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk retaliated by thumping him to the ground with his chest.
A last-minute equaliser from the Netherlands took the game to extra time, with Argentina winning the eventual penalty shootout.
Messi vents frustration after the final whistle
Messi still appeared frustrated amid the wild celebrations and was seen arguing with the Dutch management team after the game, appearing to tell van Gaal: “You talk too much.”
“I feel disrespected by van Gaal after his pre-game comments, and some Dutch players spoke too much during the game,” Messi said in a post-match interview.
The Dutch manager had earlier suggested that Messi did little to help his team when they did not have possession.
“Van Gaal says that they play good football, but what he did was put tall people and hit long balls”, Messi added.
Messi continued to vent his frustration in the tunnel, breaking from a live interview to tell Dutch player Wout Weghorst: “What are you looking at, fool? Go on and pass, fool. Go on and pass”.
Weghorst had been brought on as a substitute and scored both goals for the Netherlands.
“What are you looking at you fool”..
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Messi, who also argued with the referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz during the game, issued a more measured criticism of his officiating in a post-match interview.
“I don’t want to talk about the referee because you can’t be honest,” Messi said. “If you talk they sanction you. FIFA must think about it, they can’t put a referee who isn’t up to the task for these instances.”
This is not the first time Lionel Messi has shown his temper. In 2011, he smashed a ball into the Bernabeu crowd while playing for Barcelona against Real Madrid. He has also been sent off on three occasions in his career, one of which was for an elbow during his debut for Argentina.
However, the PSG superstar has plenty of experience in managing his anger and is often on the receiving end of provocations by opposition players.
During Argentina’s 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in the group stages, Saudi defender Ali Al-Bulayhi slapped Messi on the back and told him: “You will not win”.
On that occasion, the midfielder showed a typically cool head and only exchanged a few quiet words with the player.
As Argentina edge closer to the World Cup final, Messi will understand that he is within touching distance of completing the trophy cabinet.
For that to happen, a cool-headed Messi is far more beneficial for Argentina than one who loses his temper and risks being sent off.