DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Tears are flowing from soccer’s biggest superstars as they make emotional exits from what might be their last World Cup.
First it was Neymar. Then it was Cristiano Ronaldo. Could Lionel Messi be next?
Momentum is building behind Messi’s push to cap his career with the biggest prize in the game. The 35-year-old Argentina playmaker has carried his team to the semifinals, almost in the same way Diego Maradona — the man with whom Messi is so often compared — led the South American nation to its second and most recent World Cup title in 1986.
Now in Argentina’s way is Croatia, a country with a population of 4 million which is establishing a reputation as the most stubborn and durable of opponents while also boasting one of soccer’s most graceful players in Luka Modric.
The teams go head to head at Lusail Stadium — also the venue for Sunday’s final — in a meeting between the last two runners-up at the tournament: Argentina in 2014 and Croatia in 2018.
Argentina might have been expected to be in this position. The team arrived at the World Cup as the Copa America champion, on a 36-match unbeaten run and with Messi back in sublime form for Paris Saint-Germain.
Messi has continued that form in Qatar, scoring four goals.
“For us, he is our leader — he drives us, motivates us,” Argentina defender Nicolas Tagliafico said Monday. “We have that little bit extra when we go on the field. We are delighted that he is our captain.”
There was much less noise around the Croatians, yet they keep on surprising just like four years ago when their run to the final included a 3-0 victory over Argentina in the group stage. They also reached the World Cup semifinals in 1998.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said his team’s World Cup performances are proving to be an inspiration to other underdogs, such as fellow semifinalist Morocco.
“Everyone in life has a right to make dreams,” Dalić said. “The Croatia national team made that dream a reality for all small countries four years ago. We gave other countries the right to have those dreams.
“They are encouraged by our example, by our fight, our qualities. All other national teams are living their dreams and Morocco is no exception … But let us share the same dream.”
Both teams have come through uncomfortable moments. Argentina’s darkest time was right at the start of the tournament, after a 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in what will go down as one of the World Cup’s biggest upsets.
Inspired by Messi and one of the most fervent fan followings in Qatar, Argentina won its final two group games, ended up squeezing past Australia 2-1 in the round of 16 and then required penalties to get past the Netherlands in a wild quarterfinal match.
Messi is one goal behind top scorer Kylian Mbappé. They are probably the two standout players at a World Cup that has seen many other top players live up to their lofty reputations.
Modric is a case in point.
He might not have scored a goal. He hasn’t even had an assist. But don’t underestimate the importance to Croatia of the little magician who keeps things ticking in midfield and manages to assert some control for a team which fights until the last minute.
In 2018, each of Croatia’s knockout games went into extra time before the team lost to France in the final. The same thing is happening in Qatar, with victories in penalty shootouts over Japan in the last 16 and Brazil in the quarterfinals.
Croatia looked more comfortable against Brazil than against Japan, which shows the team might be happier to invite pressure and choose its moments to break forward rather than control games and be more susceptible to the counterattack.
Containing Messi will be key and much of the responsibility there lies with holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, who protected Croatia’s defense so well against Brazil.
Argentina will be without two players because of suspension: left back Marcos Acuña and right back Gonzalo Montiel. Acuña is the bigger miss, having impressed since coming into the team after the loss to Saudi Arabia, and he is likely to be replaced by Tagliafico.
Dalic said Croatia was free from injuries.
“If we manage to win tomorrow,” he said, “that would make it the greatest game for Croatia of all time.”