After 63 minutes into the World Cup final, or about 10 minutes before the Era of Chaos (ECB), the number 11 lit up the fourth official’s board, and almost every corner of the stadium rose to their feet in reverence. They had come to see the coronation of Lionel Messi as one of the three kings of football, but first they had received a gift from a wise man. Ángel Di María was tired now, but his brilliance in the first half was the reason why Argentina was surely on the verge of winning the World Cup.
It was not as if France had not been warned. For 20 minutes it was hard to tell if you were watching a World Cup final or Jules Kounde’s public roast. Di Maria slid up and down the touchline over Kounde’s shoulder, lurking in the shadows as Argentina lobbed crosses over the head of the French right-back, who looked like a man looking up at a thousand suns. Once Kounde came out to meet him, Di Maria offered him his series of old tricks: a shoulder drop, a stop-and-go, a shot of rhythm from those 34-year-old legs.
The French players could see what was happening but had no power to stop it. Kounde eventually got the support of his winger Ousmane Dembele on the cover, but the only thing worse than a Barcelona defender trying to deal with Di Maria was a Barcelona winger trying to deal with Di Maria.
The Argentine caught a pass and closed in on the baseline, but when Dembélé moved to block the cross, Di María made a fool of himself and cut inside in a single movement, putting the Frenchman in crisis. In his desperation to recover, he hot on the heels of Di Maria and the referee signaled the penalty spot.
After Messi converted from 12 yards, Di Maria’s goal came, a beautiful thing. Alexis Mac Allister passed Messi and ran into the French half, and by the time he came at full speed, Messi had swiftly passed his young teammate Julián Álvarez, who sent a perfect pass the way of Mac Allister. He looked up to see Di María unmarked at the far post and the ball was perfect, low and tempting. Di María accepted it gratefully with a header over Hugo Lloris.
Thirty-six minutes, two goals and France’s game plan was in tatters.
At this point, the game seemed to be over, and it was impossible not to think about how important Di María had been in The Messi Story.
As in Qatar, Messi won the Ballon d’Or for best player at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But in truth it was Di María who starred in much of Argentina’s run to the final, and the injury that ruled him out of their matchup with Germany at the Maracana may have been a turning point in history. At 27, at the height of his power, this was surely Messi’s best chance to win a World Cup, but Di Maria was not by his side and it slipped away.
Then, in 2021, after three heartbreaking defeats in Copa América finals, the last of which forced Messi to briefly retire from international football, Argentina reached the final again. They were back at the Maracana, this time against tournament hosts Brazil, but now Di Maria was there. In the first half he latched on to a through ball and bunt it up over the stranded Ederson.
Messi was peripheral in that final, even wasting a simple opportunity to kill the match in the final minutes. Di María had been the winner of the match while goalkeeper Emi Martínez had made crucial saves, just as she did in this World Cup final; but when the whistle blew, the Argentina players did not run towards any of them but towards Messi, who had collapsed on his knees. Finally, at 33 years old after four resounding final defeats, Messi had won a trophy for Argentina and Diego Maradona’s shadow was fading.
In retrospect, perhaps the substitution of Di María was a turning point in this final with France. You already know what happened next: nine minutes later, Nicolás Otamendi collided with the back of Randal Kolo Muani and Kylian Mbappé equalized from the penalty spot; 90 seconds after that, Mbappe scored a beautiful second and the game was upside down.
Why coach Lionel Scaloni eliminated his most threatening player? It was partly tactical, a way to secure midfield with a defensive-minded player like Marcos Acuña replacing him. Di Maria had been sensational, but his influence on the game waned as the second half wore on. The substitution may have been pre-planned: after starting the first two games of the tournament, Di María had played only supporting roles and had been receiving treatment for an injury. Perhaps Argentina’s medical department thought he couldn’t handle any more.
It’s not that important now. Di Maria’s influence on Messi’s path up to the moment he lifted the World Cup trophy should not be forgotten. He is an essential part of the story. Messi’s 35-year journey began on the streets of Rosario and saw him ascend to a place where only the football gods reside, carried on the wings of Ángel.
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