Télam 10/10/2017 Quito, Ecuador: Con tres goles de Messi, Argentina vence 3-1 a Ecuador y está clasificando al Mundial Rusia 2018, en el estadio Atahualpa por la última fecha de las Eliminatorias Sudamericanas. Messi festeja el tercero de sus tantos. Foto: Enviado Especial/José Romero/cf

Did you feel a sudden gust of wind yesterday around 10:30 PM? That was the entire population of Argentina collectively breathing a massive sigh of relief after the national team finally qualified to next year’s World Cup and avoided writing what would have been one of the darkest pages in its history.

La Selección beat Ecuador 3-1. Again, thanks to Lionel Messi, who scored the three goals and ratified once more – not that he stills needs to, really – he’s the best football player in the world and Argentina would have been doomed without him.

But Argentina not only beat its rival. It also beat Quito’s altitude – which conditioned the players’ athletic performance – and especially, the pressure: pressure from the media, the supporters and their own. Now that they no longer have the baggage of potentially being the first national team to not qualify to a World Cup in 48 years, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them improving their game. Plus, they have to. Qualifying is only the first step towards the real goal that Argentina always has: win the damn thing.

There’s a lot to go through: the match, the context, the other Latin American teams that qualified and the repercussions. So, without further a do, let’s begin.

The Match

The match started in the worst way possible: with Ecuador scoring before the first minute. After two consecutive errors from Argentine defenfers, Romario Ibarra beat goalkeeper Sergio Romero with an effective crossed left-footed finish.

However, and contrary to what more than one expected, the team didn’t succumb to the pressure. It showed character to continue with its game plan, adapted to the adverse conditions generated by Quito’s altitude. The reward came only 11 minutes later. After a good collective play, Lionel Messi – who else, no? – received an assist from Angel Di María and finished alone before the goalkeeper.

Far from celebrating, the players rushed back to the center of the pitch, aware that there was still a long way to go. Argentina continued pressuring its rival, forcing mistakes from an Ecuadorian team that displayed its lack of experience and technical ability. Enzo Pérez and Lucas Biglia began to win the battle for the midfield, making it easier for the strikers to approximate the rival box with the ball on their feet.

Only eight minutes after the first goal, Messi recovered the ball after a failed attempt to clear the play from an Ecuadorian center back, and proceeded to take an impossible shot for the rival keeper. In this case, the players did allow themselves to celebrate the fact that in the current circumstances, the goal represented a ticket to Russia. They had to defend the victory for 70 minutes and hope that the other countries disputing the qualification not surpass them.

Argentina continued dominating the match – or at least preventing Ecuador from getting close to the box with danger. The three defenders – Gabriel Mercado, Javier Mascherano and Nicolás Otamendi – managed to contain the powerful and fast Ecuadorian strikers with a mixture of timing and tactical fouls aimed at avoiding to enter the terrain that would have been hardest for them to defend: long races for the ball.

As the minutes went by, further relief continued to arrive from different fronts. Venezuela, already out of the World Cup, was beating Paraguay in Asuncion and crushed its dreams of qualification; a helpless Chile conceded three goals to the already qualified Brazil and sinked to the bottom of the mini-table comprised of the teams that disputed the available tickets to Russia; and Colombia scored against Peru, meaning that even if Argentina tied, it would still make it to the playoff.

Peru ended up tying the game, but by then, Argentina already felt in Russia because in the 62nd minute, Messi captured a lost ball and, after seizing a run by Darío Benedetto who carried a mark, lobbed the ball over the keeper, unleashing the unbridled celebration.

Not much more happened in the last 30 minutes of the match. It was more a matter of waiting until being able to officially declare that Argentina was in the World Cup and that it’s – almost – all thanks to Messi.

All Help is Welcome?

Now that we have established that Argentina won, we can go back to the previous hours to the match and say that everyone was scared to death about the possibility of not qualifying. So much so that Juan Sebastián Verón, who played three World Cups himself and is the current director of national teams, advised AFA President Claudio Tapia to take a sorcerer who had helped him in his time of need when he was a player, to Quito.

Believe it or not, Tapia, and even coach Jorge Sampaoli agreed with the proposal and “El Brujo” Manuel Valdez went to Quito.

Repercussions and Celebrations

After a really long time, La Selección was able to celebrate again. It wasn’t a championship – Argentina hasn’t won an official international competition since 1993 – but considering the circumstances, it was celebrated as such.

Even President Mauricio Macri tweeted about the victory after the game, obviously emphasizing on Messi’s prowess.

“Thanks guys for such joy!! Go Argentina!!!,” reads the tweet.

“There’s no argument. Messi always dazzles. Cheers to a player from another world,” tweeted Macri, who also reportedly called him on the phone once the game ended. “I congratulate you Lio, and thank you for what you did,” he told him, according to press.

Once in the locker room, the players continued with the celebration that had began on the pitch and, with not so nice words, dedicated the qualification to the media. Why? they consider the media was unfair with them in their coverage and even spread false information about them. In fact, they had decided not to talk to the press anymore last year after a journalist reported that Ezequiel Lavezzi had allegedly smoked marijuana days before a match.

However, the final whistle put an end to the players decision. Captain Messi was in charge to make it clear when he faced the mics, following a collective decision made in the locker room.

“I believe that all this time that we were a bit away from the press and the people helped us [the players] come closer. After this , it’s important that we all unite. We all want the same: for the national team to do well. If we all stand together, it’s easier,” he said about the decision.

Regarding the qualification, he said: “the fear of not making it was there. We let opportunities past by us. It would have been crazy, not only for me, and I don’t know how I would have reacted had it happened, but for the entire country,” he said. “The team will change after this. It will grow a lot. It’s not easy to play the qualifiers. After this, the team will be much stronger,” he added.

Who else Qualified? 

This last set of games determined which of the five teams would get the two and a half spots – two direct ones and a playoff – remaining in dispute in South America. In an attempt to avoid speculation, all matches started at the same time. However, this proved to be impossible. But conspiracy theories aside – though there’s evidence that there is truth to them – Argentina and Colombia qualified, Peru got the playoff spot and Chile and Paraguay will watch the World Cup on TV.

What’s Next

The draw will take place on December 1st at the Kremlin, in Moscow. Argentina will be one of the eight top seeded teams – which is determined in accordance with the FIFA ranking, plus the organizing country – and will be the strongest team in its group.

The World Cup will kick off on June 14, at the Luzhnikí Olympic Stadium, in Moscow, where Russia will play a still undetermined rival. That same stadium will host the final, which will take place on July 15.

The stadium
The stadium

How to Get Tickets

The sale has already began, with the first of three stage finishing tomorrow. The second one will be divided in two: from December 5 to January 31, and from March 13 to April 3. The last one will take place between April 18 and July 15, the day of the final. You can get them on FIFA’s official website.

How Much it Would Cost you to go to the World Cup

Cronista did the math for you and assures that going to Russia and staying during the entirety of the World Cup would cost you at least US$ 3,000. And that’s without taking into account the tickets, which are between US$ 220 and 1,100, depending on the match and the location.

Russia 2018, anyone?