Saturday, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the Iranian National Football Team was less than two minutes away from a historic World Cup result when ref Milorad Mazic and Lionel Messi intervened.
Mazic did not call an obvious penalty, and Lionel Messi, who has now scored two agonizing, late, winning goals, brought his magic to bear when his team most needed it.
The final score was 1-0, with Messi scoring at the 92nd minute. It was, as always, a right to left run and gun. The shot was a curler that nicked a defender on the way and beat the stretching hands of the diving Alireza Haghighi, who otherwise had a brilliant game.
The match was a confrontation between unequal teams where the weaker one spends the vast majority of the game defending and perhaps has a couple of hopeful counter attacks, while the stronger team spends the whole game trying to find the one crack in the eleven-man defense.
The Argentines had several chances go begging by last minute defensive blocks and a few very good saves. But mostly they were off their game again and seemed hard put to find a rhythm let alone a way to play as a team. Whenever Angel di Maria would make a great run down the left no one seemed placed to either receive the cross or to back him up by being in position for an outlet pass. The same could be said whenever Sergio Arguero or Pablo Zabaleta did the same.
Even Messi seemed out of sorts as he was receiving precious little service and could not consistently connect with his teammates for anything resembling a combined play. When those rare instances did materialize the Iranian’s skilled defense, and sheer number of men in the box, seemed to have the answer.
What must also be said is that Iran had a couple of headers which Argentine keeper, Sergio Romero, saved brilliantly. One header saw Romero dive backwards to just get his fingers on the ball and push it over the cross bar. The second great chance was a diving header that the goalkeeper caught by being in the right spot and crouching to catch and trap a difficult ball.
But the story of this game was the unfortunate nature of the officiating which changed the tenor of the match. Once again the likes of Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago combined for strategic fouls aplenty stopping cold most of the very few Iranian counters. Then, when Iran finally had a breakaway the striker was brought down in the box my Zabaleta. A clear penalty that all viewers save the ref saw. No call was made, and despite the many Iranian protests and the loud crowd booing, the game continued.
After Messi finally scored, and the Iranians kicked off and moved the ball down the field for a very infrequent possession in the Argentine half of the pitch, there were ninety-seconds of stoppage time left. Then Iran earned a corner. But as the ball floated toward the assembled crowd of players in the box, the ref saw and whistled for a foul which stopped the action as the ball descended.
On the ground were two Iranians and one Argentine, and the Argentine was the one the ref thought was fouled. Replays would show the call was a judgment call since both teams had committed fouls. But a foul in favor of Iran would have been a penalty. The foul in Argentina’s favor, not only saved the ref from having to make such a difficult call but it also allowed Messi’s team to kill the clock for the win.
Then, when the final whistle blew, something really strange happened, the Univision and ESPN Deportes commentators said almost the same thing, within seconds of each other. Paraphrased, the gist was: “It is bad enough that the officiating is poor but when it is uniformly benefiting the bigger teams, such as the Italian foul against Costa Rica that should have been a penalty and yet went uncalled, or the non-penalty on Fred granted to Brazil, or the penalty not granted against Argentina today, one needs to question the integrity of the tournament. Who benefits, but FIFA and others with financial interests, when the big teams progress at the expense of the smaller ones. Perhaps one Costa Rica was the quota, less the television revenue numbers decline.”