There are two things about something called a ‘grounder’ when it comes to the game of football. It means when you hit ball along the ground.
First, it is difficult to hit with perfection when taken from a distance. Positioning of the body has to be perfect, head has to be lowered and placed above the ball, and the shooter’s body has to be bent from the waist. Otherwise, the ball will travel in air. Somewhat like cricket, where batters are advised to keep the head above the ball rather than away while executing the drive shot. Second, it is the most difficult kind of challenge for a goalkeeper to deal with. Usually, they are tall. For them to get that low and slide along the ground to save that ball is not a mean ask.
That is why Lionel Messi’s strike against Mexico in Argentina’s do or die match was so special. He took the shot from a fair bit of distance, about 22-25 yards. The crucial part was how he adjusted his body position, by checking just about half a step before making connection with the ball. He knew what he was doing. Others realised that after he had completed his act. Then comes the question of imparting the curl. It kept going away from the goalkeeper, teasing him all the way. To have that kind of control and presence of mind in a pressure situation!
That was the most remarkable part about the goal which kept Argentina in the World Cup after the opening defeat against Saudi Arabia. Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa is a vastly experienced and extremely skilled goalkeeper. He might have thought that he had the angle covered. But the level and amount of spin Messi packed in that drive undid Ochoa. He went as far as he could to his left and yet, the ball just kept moving away from him before entering the net from so close to that post.
Precision in execution, gifted sense of exactly how much of power to pack in the shot, knowledge of how much of curl or swing to impart, decades of practise and seeing that opening through a maze of defending legs — that made the goal so unique. And, remember the context. Team staring at an unexpectedly early exit, the goal they needed not coming despite dominating the opposition and to be able to deliver something like that, it was unforgettable. Then, the beauty of watching it!
The other thing about that Messi goal was the minimal use of power. In case of the second one struck by Enzo Fernandez, it was mostly about force. Messi did not need that. He met the ball almost with love and caressed it in. That’s something he has been doing for so long. Remember the last-minute winner he netted against Iran in 2014? That was an aerial effort, technique wise different from the one we are talking about. But the similarity was the predominance of touch and not muscles.
It’s for moments like this that people watch football. It does not quite assure Argentina’s passage into the pre-quarters. They have many gaps to plug in the defensive midfield region and in defence. Poland will be a formidable opponent in the last match. But for neutral viewers, if we are, that was something worth remembering. Nonviolent, yet so telling. Messi has kept his team in it. What happens here on? Let’s see.