LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — As Lionel Messi struggled to hold back his tears, Pablo Aimar let them flow on the bench.
Covering his hands with his face, Argentina’s assistant coach, the former player who Messi idolized as a child, was almost hyperventilating with emotion after the goal that kept alive the Albiceleste’s World Cup journey.
A sobbing Aimar even had to be calmed down by Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni as the final minutes were being played in the team’s 2-0 win over Mexico on Saturday.
This is how much it means to Argentina — the nation, the fans, the coaching staff and the players.
And, for Scaloni, it’s a real concern.
“We should have a little more common sense, and think that it is just a football game,” Scaloni said. “The truth is, I don’t share the feeling that you are playing something more than a game. And that’s what the players feel when they go out on the pitch.
“We have to correct it and we will try to continue on the path of them feeling that it is a football game. Otherwise, every time you have to play for a match, for the knockout phase .... it will always be like that.”
Unfortunately for Scaloni, it seems as if this is one message which is unlikely to get through at this World Cup.
One of his favorite sayings over the past week in Qatar and going back further is: “Win or lose, the sun will rise tomorrow.”
For Argentines, however, this journey to a third World Cup title has the feeling of life or death.
They’ve gone from the unexpected low of losing to Saudi Arabia in one of the World Cup’s biggest upsets to the high of beating Mexico to ignite their hopes of going all the way.
Teary-eyed fans embraced each other in the stands at Lusail Stadium. Argentine journalists did the same.
And the players were getting carried away in the locker room after the final whistle, singing songs — one chorus says that Diego Maradona and his mother are cheering on Messi from heaven— while jumping up and down on their seats and banging their fists against the walls. Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez stood on a table in the middle of the room, swinging a towel above his head.
So much for the need to “maintain balance,” as Scaloni suggested after the game.
“People will think I’m crazy but fine, we won, we’re celebrating, it happens,” Scaloni said.
“But tomorrow we have to prepare the (next) game. It’s like when we won the Copa (America) final and we had to think about what came next. The joy doesn’t last long.”
Whether Argentina's players can get off this emotional rollercoaster ahead of the make-or-break match against Poland on Wednesday remains to be seen.
A draw might not be enough so Argentina will have to play to win at Stadium 974 in Doha in a match held concurrently with Mexico-Saudi Arabia in Group C.
Calm heads may be needed, though that doesn't seem the Argentina way.
Indeed, Messi thought that was his team's problem as Argentina struggled to find a way through Mexico's obdurate defense in the first hour of the match. Messi could be seen imploring his teammates to relax.
“We knew we were going too fast at times and therefore we made mistakes,” he said.
Messi said Argentina was anxious in the game against Saudi Arabia, also played in front of tens of thousands of Albiceleste fans in a Lusail Stadium that can hold nearly 89,000. The attendance of 88,966 spectators for the Mexico match was the largest at a World Cup match since 1994.
There will be around half that number in the stadium for the game against Poland.
That may prove be a blessing for Argentina.
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80