The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Argentina advances to World Cup semis with part dazzle and part chaos

Argentina and Lionel Messi will advance to the World Cup semifinals. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
7 min

LUSAIL, Qatar — The World Cup quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands on Friday rolled deep into the night, flush with extraordinary acts performed by an individual adding to his legend and by a team that extended the show with free-kick trickery seconds before the final whistle would have upended a courageous comeback.

After 120 minutes of riveting and contentious soccer, after the Dutch recovered from a two-goal deficit late in regulation to force a 2-2 tie, after the scuffles and the chaos, a match of high drama and sensational twists came to a close in a penalty kick shootout.

The Argentines prevailed, 4-3, keeping alive both Lionel Messi’s hopes for a first World Cup title and La Albiceleste’s bid for its first championship in a generation.

Emiliano Martinez stopped the first two Dutch attempts, and Argentina made all but one to advance to Tuesday’s semifinal against 2018 finalist Croatia.

“Our objective is to play all seven games” and play in the final, Argentine Coach Lionel Scaloni said. “Now that we are dancing, we need to keep on dancing. We want to take the next step. The game against Croatia will be a beautiful game, and we hope to rise up to the standards.”

With the clang of a post, Croatia silences Brazil at the World Cup

Brazil no longer stands in Argentina’s way. On a night its South American archrival fell to the Croatians, Argentina survived an epic near-collapse before 88,235 at Lusail Stadium.

Messi’s achievements are almost unparalleled in soccer history, but his greatest feats have come on the club level, with FC Barcelona and now Paris Saint-Germain. He didn’t win a senior national team title until last year, at Copa America, a continental championship.

He came close in 2014, when Argentina lost to Germany in the World Cup final in Brazil.

Though he still seems to have much to offer — and would be a centerpiece at the 2026 competition taking place in the United States, Mexico and Canada — the 35-year-old Messi said this will be his last World Cup. That is what he says, anyway. In 2016, after Argentina lost the Copa America final to Chile, he announced he was done with the national team because of issues with the Argentine federation.

“We got to the semifinal, and that is what we wanted,” Messi said. “When we won, it was a huge joy and a weight off our shoulders. We suffered.”

On Friday, his assist on Nahuel Molina’s first-half goal will not soon be forgotten. He also scored on a penalty kick, but Wout Weghorst answered with goals in the 83rd minute and in the 11th minute of stoppage time to nudge the match into a 30-minute overtime and ultimately the shootout.

In the tiebreaker, Martinez dived to his right to stop Virgil van Dijk’s attempt and to his left to deny Steven Berghuis. The Netherlands converted its last three, but Argentina made four of five, capped by Lautaro Martinez’s goal.

“Sometimes it is difficult in these situations and people shy away,” Scaloni said. “This time we had too many volunteers. It is something very positive when you see the whole team wanting to take a penalty, and then we had Emiliano. We knew he could save some penalties.”

Dutch Coach Louis van Gaal said: “The boys fought until the bitter end. They are despondent. They gave everything, and I am incredibly proud. … It is incredibly painful to see how we were eliminated.”

About an hour before kickoff here, the possibility of a dream semifinal between Argentina and Brazil was no more, undercut 10 miles away by Croatia’s shootout victory over the Brazilians.

Messi’s likely last World Cup inspires hope in a beleaguered Argentina

Inside and outside the stadium, many Argentine fans watching Brazil on mobile phones took great pleasure in seeing their rivals fall in a relatively early stage. The result, though, also sounded a warning to Argentina about the precariousness of an elimination match, particularly against an opponent with pedigree, poise and a wily coach in van Gaal.

After missing the 2018 World Cup, the Dutch won their group and dispatched the United States in the round of 16. And though the Dutch began the night as clear underdogs, Argentina was hardly invincible, having lost to Saudi Arabia in the group opener and survived a round-of-16 scare from Australia.

World Cup bracket and knockout round schedule

In the first half, the Netherlands set a deliberate pace, preventing Argentina from operating at speed and causing some uneasy moments for Messi and Co. Rebuffed at every turn, the Argentines unlocked the Dutch resistance through Messi’s brilliance in the 35th minute.

Some 40 yards from the target, he took the initiative. With one Dutchman already cast aside, Messi bore down on Nathan Aké — shifting, shaking and surveying. Aké stepped up, then back, then up again. He was defeated.

Messi now had the space to do as he pleased. To Messi’s right, Molina saw the opportunity begin to unfold and made his move.

Though he was gliding to his left, Messi kept Molina in his plans. Molina slipped into a channel, shielding Daley Blind from any chance of intervening.

Messi delivered a cutback through ball that was millimeter-precise in its placement. Molina’s first touch freed him from Blind, and as Andries Noppert charged off his line, the 24-year-old wing back poked the ball under the goalkeeper for his first international goal in 24 appearances.

For the fifth consecutive match, Argentina had scored first.

Lusail Stadium, flooded with sky blue and white in support of Argentina, turned deafening. Small blocks of Dutch orange marveled in silence.

Kylian Mbappé’s captivating, cascading World Cup joy

The second half did not offer much hope to the Dutch. The margin, though, remained one goal until the 73rd minute. Denzel Dumfries, star of the Dutch victory over the United States, upended Marcos Acuña at the edge of the box.

As the furious Dutch surrounded referee Antonio Mateu, Noppert approached Messi and stood face to face with him as he set the ball on the penalty spot. Noppert said something. Messi nodded.

On the attempt, Noppert guessed Messi would shoot down the middle and didn’t commit either way. He guessed wrong.

As the ambitious USMNT exits the World Cup, the focus shifts to what’s possible

Messi’s 10th World Cup goal tied him with Gabriel Batistuta (1991-2002) for Argentina’s all-time lead.

The Dutch answered in the 83rd minute, when Berghuis crossed to Weghorst for a terrific header into the far corner.

Blackistone: Morocco’s World Cup team represents a new era of soccer nationalism

An ill-tempered second half spilled over in the 89th minute, with both benches emptying. That chaos, combined with several other delays, resulted in 10 minutes of stoppage time. Because of further delays, it became 11.

Berghuis’s 22-yard free kick crashed into the Argentine wall. The Dutch kept pushing. Argentina was showing cracks.

With time melting away, the Dutch earned another free kick just outside the box. Substitute Teun Koopmeiners took it, but instead of lifting the ball over the wall, he fooled Argentina by sliding a soft pass to Weghorst stationed next to the barricade. Weghorst warded off a defender and hooked a low shot into the net.

The Argentine players — and their fans who seconds earlier were prepared to celebrate victory — were stunned.

Clashes marred extra time. Each team received eight yellow cards, and Dumfries received a second deep in extra time, resulting in a red card.

Argentina’s Enzo Fernández hit the post from 25 yards. The shootout would have to decide it.

At some point, Martinez overheard van Gaal talking to his players.

“I heard van Gaal say: ‘We’ve got an advantage in penalties. If we go to penalties, we win,’ ” Martinez said. “I think he needs to keep his mouth shut.”

For Messi, the dream of lifting the World Cup trophy was alive and well.

“It was a very hard match from the beginning,” he said. “We knew it was going to be this way. We suffered a lot. We got to the semifinal, and that is what we wanted.”

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.