Sports

Argentina’s Semifinal Win Came Courtesy of a Surprise Hero

OK yes: He had help from Lionel Messi.

A group of Argentina's players happily hugging on the pitch.
Argentina’s midfielder #07 Rodrigo De Paul, forward #22 Lautaro Martinez, forward #10 Lionel Messi, forward #21 Paulo Dybala, midfielder #20 Alexis Mac Allister, and midfielder #05 Leandro Paredes celebrate winning the Qatar 2022 World Cup football semifinal match between Argentina and Croatia at Lusail Stadium on Dec. 13, 2022.  Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images.

As we all suspected, in the end there was one player on Argentina that Croatia’s bend-but-don’t-break defense just couldn’t find a way to stop: Julián Álvarez?

Yes. Sort of. With a little luck and, yes, some help from a certain Lionel Messi, the 22-year-old Argentine forward had the best game of his brief international career in his nation’s 3–0 win over Croatia on Tuesday, scoring twice and drawing a penalty to take Argentina back to its sixth World Cup final, in search of its third title. Just the way we drew it up: Croatia routed, Argentina rampant, Álvarez the man of the hour.

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The first 30 minutes of the game passed more or less as Croatia would have wanted. It dominated possession, manipulating Argentina this way and that to try to create chances. Manager Zlatko Dalić pushed clusters of players wide to overload Argentina’s fullbacks and stretch out its narrow diamond midfield. Its players would hold the ball for an extra second to suck the Argentina defenders in before playing it on to the next option. Their movement was so smart they seemed to have more players on the field than their opponents; there’s always one extra body around the ball, one more passing option than there should be as they shifted and covered for each other. There ought to have been space to exploit, but so few teams could find it.

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Until Argentina did. After probing first the left and then the right side of Croatia’s defense with no results, Argentina tried going right up the gut, and was rewarded twice for its efforts.

The first goal was a Lionel Messi penalty, won by Álvarez after a rare mistake on defense from Croatia. Center back Dejan Lovren dropped off when his partner Josko Gvardiol stepped up, and that gave Álvarez a longer runway to latch onto Enzo Fernández’s long, bouncing pass. Álvarez’s first shot attempt was soft enough to be cleared by Lovren, but he was cleared out by goalkeeper Dominik Livaković while he still had a chance to play the ball, leading to the penalty.

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The second came just minutes later, off one of the more curious breakaways this tournament has seen. Argentina cleared a Croatian corner kick to Álvarez just inside of his own half. With few defenders between him and the goal and even fewer passing options, he took off running. The Croatians backpedaled, and kept backpedaling, and got momentarily distracted by late-arriving Argentinian runners. By the time they tried to get in Álvarez’s way, they were off-balance and lunging while he was still accelerating. The defensive pokes rebounded off of him twice, and he kept just enough control to take the ball into the net. The bill for all the lucky bounces Croatia had gotten through two tournaments of winning close game after close game came due on one play.

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But 2–0 leads aren’t necessarily safe for Argentina, which gave up two goals in the final 10 minutes against the Netherlands in its quarterfinal. There was plenty of time after the half for Croatia, the comeback cognoscente, to bring the game back to even terms.

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But all Croatia could produce were speculative efforts that failed to trouble keeper Emiliano Martínez. The finishing fortune that tied Croatia’s games with Brazil and Japan deserted it. It could have used some of its midfield precision in the attacking end, where it struggled to make the high-difficulty plays to earn good shots. Argentina provided a handy lesson on this during its third goal, courtesy of you can probably guess. (Trick question! It’s Messi and Álvarez.) Matched one-on-one with the phenom Gvardiol, Messi baited him with the ball, shrugged off the bigger man’s pushes, and got to the endline to cut back for Álvarez’s second goal.

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That one clinched it, putting the game beyond even Croatia’s considerable powers. The Checkered Ones have made two World Cup semifinals in a row, and three since 1998, but it’s bound to look different by the next time the tournament rolls around. All-time legend Luka Modrić—who’s been pulling out improbable wins for Real Madrid as well as his country for the better part of a decade and who started every game of this World Cup at age 37—will almost surely be gone. The team has a lot of players in their late-20s primes who may still be able to perform in 2026 or who may have begun falling off. But two deep runs in two subsequent World Cups provide plenty of institutional knowledge for the future. Its luck is probably not sustainable, but if the next generation of Croatian players are half as clever and a quarter as resilient as this one, then it could very well be a new European power, one like Portugal or the Netherlands, whom nobody will want to get matched up with in any tournament.

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Argentina goes into a final against either France or Morocco knowing it could beat either. It has shown in this tournament that it can win pretty or ugly, by dominating or squeezing by, running around you or right through you. Álvarez has been a revelation; Martínez a safe pair of hands. But the Argentina fans are under no illusion about how they’ve made it this far:

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Messi now has another chance to capture the one trophy that’s eluded him. He’s tied with his club teammate Kylian Mbappé for the most goals in this tournament, and while it’s true that three of Messi’s were penalties, he’s also added two sublime assists in Argentina’s past two games. If this is the 35-year-old’s last World Cup as he’s hinted—though honestly, he plays for a country that has always idolized its stationary playmakers and could absolutely continue spraying sublime passes while never leaving the center circle well past 2026—then he is making the best possible closing argument. The only question left to answer on Sunday is whether he’ll be considered the greatest player of all time by merely the vast majority of the world’s population or by everyone save the most intransigent hardliners who are so dug in to their incorrect opinions that it would shatter their entire sense of self to be extracted from them. I know which side I’d rather be on: the one that’s going to enjoy him, and this run, while it lasts.

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