Moscow discovered much of the joyful essence of a World Cup on Saturday.
The Russian capital has had its partisan celebration, when the tournament opened with the emphatic home victory over Saudi Arabia.
At the Spartak stadium it now the delight of stark contrasts: a vast, proud nation with two World Cup triumphs in its history up against an island country setting a new standard at this, tiny Iceland’s first appearance at sport’s great showpiece. They are the smallest country ever to make a World Cup, and on their debut, amazingly, they held Argentina 1-1.
The fans brought distinct sounds, the Icelanders with their trademark thunderclap noise and gesture, two arms raised and, after a pause, crashed together with a low gutteral grunt. The Argentinians, bigger in number in the arena and perhaps more at home under a warm sun, weel, they have been developing mass football songs for a century or more.
They sang in stirring unison at times. As for the football, this was the collision of two very different textbooks.
Argentina sought to win by pass-and-move. Iceland counter-attacked fast, used the high ball, and above all they were superbly marshalled and prepared, to combat what their head coach Heimar Hallgrimsson acknowledged are Argentina’s ‘superior players.’
One of those superiors may well be the finest on the planet. Lionel Messi dominated the ball yesterday. He will dominate some headlines, too, for having fluffed the penalty that would have put Argentina 2-1 up in the second half.
It was saved by Hannes Halldorsson, the sharp, commanding Icelandic goalkeeper. It was hard not to feel for Messi. He had tackled hard, sweated buckets, looked again and again for the telling pass, seen efforts saved and shave the post.
Then he struck a poor spot-kick and all sorts of memories returned. Like from two years ago, when he missed a penalty in the decisive shoot-out in the Copa America final and thought, at that point, that he no longer wanted to play for Argentina again.
Thankfully he changed his mind. He is in Russia, still an international footballer, still bearing the endless pressure and the wearying question: Will this be Messi’s World Cup? So far it is not his at all but very clearly it has been somebody else’s.
Yes, that man to who Messi has lived almost half a lifetime being compared, judged against. Less than 24 hours before Messi made his bow at Russia 2018, Cristiano Ronaldo had made his, with huge swagger and style. Yes, they both drew their first matches, but the similarities pretty much end at that.
Ronaldo’s sensational hat-trick against Spain on Friday has already set a new landmark in World Cup annals; it also looked like the sort of gauntlet the game’s most gifted duellists, CR7 and Little Leo have been throwing down to another weekend after weekend for most of the last decades, in the sport of individual dare-and-challenge that gets exchanged between Madrid and Barcelona.
When Messi scores two for Barca on a Saturday, Ronaldo regularly replies with three for Madrid against some punchbag club from provincial Spain. And vice-versa.
Not so in the World Cup context, except perhaps that Ronaldo now has a European championship with Portugal to set next to Messi’s serial silver medals in an Argentina jersey. And now we have a wham-bam first weekend of Russia 2018 to grant to Ronaldo.
He scored a penalty against Spain. Messi fluffed one against Iceland.
Ronaldo scored a second goal, helped by a goalkeeping error; Messi encountered an Iceland with a gloveman on excellent form, as organised as his superbly drilled team.
Ronaldo scored a brilliant direct free-kick late on. Messi struck a few free-kicks yesterday, and they either flew over the bar, narrowly wide or at Halldorsson.
It may get not get much easier for Argentina in Group D. They are evidently leaning on Messi as much as ever, even if Sergio Aguero provided a reminder of his excellent finishing, swivelling skilfully to put his team in the lead.
In Argentina’s defence, meanwhile, where goalkeeper Willy Caballero was making a competitive international debut at 36 years old, there were jittery moments that Iceland exploited.
Messi cannot solve those, although he can perhaps encourage attacking colleagues to speed up their approach play a little as the tournament builds.
And this World Cup would benefit from Argentina staying around for a while, if only that it means Messi remains on the big stage.
He deserves that stage, but then so the stars of the great, unfolding underdog story of this decade in international football. Iceland, tiny Iceland, really look like they belong.