RIO DE JANIERO – Lionel Messi broke free at the top of the box midway through the second half here and an entire stadium full of frenzied Argentina fans knew what was next: a rocket from his fabled left foot.
The ensuing sound said it all: “OHHHHHHHH!!!”
Messi's goal, careening off the left goalpost and into millions of memories, made it 2-0 in the 65th minute and whipped a restless Maracana crowd into a tornado of sound. It came just in time, too, as the heavy favorites looked anxious and mired throughout the match. Bosnia-Herzegovina gave Argentina an own goal to start the game, and closed it to 2-1 before full time, but Messi's goal – the only one of the night off an Argentina player's foot – was the difference between a reassuring victory and days of soul-searching.
The quiet superstar watched his shot go in and then bolted to the corner of the field, screaming, popping his Argentina jersey and throwing a fist pump. After all the emotion that funneled down from the stands onto him throughout one of the biggest moments of his life, a man accused of being a little too cool returned all the heat.
"He is one of the best players in the world not only today," said Bosnia manager Safet Susic, "but maybe for all-time."
The goal, and all that preceded it, was so appropriate for Messi’s story. He has given a nation more anticipation than it’s had for soccer in a generation, and the sound that greeted the sight of his face on the big screen here before the game at the Maracana was deafening.
Still somehow, in all the bedlam, his vibe was of a man sitting in a pew at church. Messi was controlled and seemingly unmoved throughout the first half.
That is the magic and method of Messi, who is calm and austere amid all kinds of pandemonium. He created the din, and then the frenzy ebbed as chance after chance evaporated at his fast feet.
The ball came to Messi, and time seemed to stop as it always does when the greatest find the play. He danced and dodged as he does, causing a collective hush everywhere. But there was no speed, no rhythm. There was a man stepping quickly in an ever-closing box of defenders. It was like that throughout the first half, the magnet drawing everything in.
"We let them play," Messi said.
Goalie Sergio Romero had to bail his team out on several occasions, and the Argentina attack seemed to stop and start like Buenos Aires traffic. The defense, by far the team's greatest liability, showed why.
"Obviously, it was not our best performance," Pablo Zabaleta said. "We can play much better than that."
The heavy favorite came out moving in the second, however, and Bosnia's plan – to press Messi every time he touched the ball – crumbled when the star found support around him that wasn't there in the opening half.
"It is impossible to man-mark Messi for 90 minutes," Susic said.
Midway through the second half, Messi had a free kick – one of the first real looks at the net all evening. He sailed it high over the net, and there was a crescendo of frustration among the 74,000-plus people watching.
Then, almost as soon as the wild chants of 'Messi!' had completely given way to quiet mutters of 'Messi,' he worked his way into the open field after a give-and-go with Gonzalo Higuain and time stopped again. Each nudge of the ball freed him more, and left extra defenders in his wake. Two Bosnia players tripped over each other. One watched helplessly from behind. It was vintage Messi – the left-footed master moving from his right before putting his shot where no goalie could reach it. The world knew Messi had to lift Argentina almost by himself in this tournament, and that's exactly what he did.
The stadium erupted in songs that did not stop for the rest of the match. The magic had returned at just the right moment. The congestion of the first half was only a petty prelude. A day that began with swarms of Argentina fans rocking Brazil subway cars with claps and songs ended in relief.
"Meeesssi, Meeeessi, Meeesssi!" they all chanted together in the afternoon, and then again into the night.