“I TOLD the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi.”
Coach Jorge Sampaoli was speaking after a Lionel Messi hat-trick against Ecuador – the 44th of his career – ensured Argentina survived a scare to reach the World Cup finals.
The 2014 runners-up began the day sixth in the group, knowing only a top-four place would see them qualify automatically for Russia.
They made a terrible start in Quito, conceding inside 38 seconds, but the Barcelona superstar led Argentina’s fight back to ensure they secured their place in next year’s tournament.
It was part of a remarkable night of football that saw:
Panama qualify for their first World Cup with a controversial goal in a 2-1 win over Costa Rica
The United States miss out on the tournament for the first time since 1986 after losing to Trinidad & Tobago
Chile manager Juan Antonio Pizzi step down after his side lost to Brazil to miss out on qualifying for their third consecutive World Cup
Portugal beat Switzerland to replace them at the top of their qualifying group but the Netherlands go out despite winning
Messi said it would have been “crazy” had Argentina not qualified for Russia 2018, but it took his intervention to ensure they reached their 12th consecutive World Cup.
Ecuador scored in the first minute, taking advantage of Argentina’s hesitancy, before Messi struck twice before half-time to calm some nerves.
His third, a lofted chip over goalkeeper Maximo Banguera, saw his country win for the first time in the Ecuadorian capital since 2001 and, crucially, reach next year’s World Cup.
Sampaoli warned against Argentina depending too much on Messi – despite it being a remarkable 11 months since any other Argentina player scored for the national team in a World Cup qualifier.
“Today, luckily, the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinean,” Sampaoli continued.
“We must be sure everything does not depend on Leo but today he brought his great ability. I told the group we should help him be in the World Cup.”
Nestled between Kuwait and Moldova as the world’s 131st most populous nation, Panama’s biggest football achievement up until Tuesday evening was finishing as runner-up in the 2013 Gold Cup.
Now, they have reached their first World Cup – but it was not without controversy, because the Gabriel Torres’ header that drew Panama level with Costa Rica did not appear to cross the line.
Despite furious complaints from the visitors, the goal stood, and Roman Torres struck in the final few minutes to send Panama through.
It was a neat reversal of fortunes for Panama, who missed out on qualifying for the last World Cup after conceding two goals in stoppage time against the US in 2013.
This time, though, it was their 87th-minute winner that ensured their place in Russia – at the expense of the US.
In contrast to Panama, the United States has a population of 323.1 million. Their opponents on Tuesday, Trinidad and Tobago, have a population of 1.3m – roughly the same as the US state of Maine.
Described as the “most surreal and embarrassing night in US soccer history” and “simply devastating” by American journalists, the players were left in tears following their shock 2-1 loss.
“It’s a blemish for us. We should not be staying at home for this World Cup and I take responsibility,” coach Bruce Arena said of a team ranked 28th in the world.
“We failed on the day. No excuses. We failed today. We should have walked off this field with at least a point.”
Captain Michael Bradley described the night as the “perfect storm”.
“Everything that could have possibly gone wrong did, in this stadium and in two other stadiums across the [Concacaf] region,” he added.
“To give away the first goal like that [an own goal] is a killer. But the reality is it was all there for us, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
Chile & Portugal
Brazil ended Chile’s slim hopes of reaching the World Cup as their 3-0 victory pushed Alexis Sanchez and company from third to sixth in the qualifying group.
Midfielder Arturo Vidal, who missed the game through suspension, announced his retirement following the loss and tweeted that “my soul is destroyed”.
“Thanks boys, for everything, for all these years together giving our lives in every game,” the 30-year-old wrote.
Chile’s Argentinean manager Juan Antonio Pizzi also left his post after Tuesday’s disappointment.
While it was misery for Sanchez, another superstar forward, Cristiano Ronaldo, was smiling as Portugal avoided the play-offs to guarantee their fifth consecutive World Cup appearance with a 2-0 victory over Switzerland.
But the Netherlands – third in the 2014 tournament – are out, despite beating Sweden 2-0.
The Dutch needed a seven-goal win to nudge their opponents out of the play-off berth behind group winners France. (BBC Sport)