Nine months ago, the Netherlands lost to Lionel Messi and Argentina in a bitter quarterfinal battle that ended 2-2 and was decided on penalties. On Monday, Louis van Gaal, who was managing the Netherlands in that game, claimed that the loss was part of a conspiracy to award Messi with a World Cup.
“I really didn’t want to say that much about it,” Van Gaal told a Dutch outlet NOS during the Eredivisie Awards. “When you see how Argentina got their goals and how we got our goals, and how some Argentina players overstepped the mark and were not punished. Yeah, then I think it was all premeditated.”
The reporter asked Van Gaal to clarify what he meant. “I mean everything that I say,” Van Gaal replied.
“That Messi had to become world champion?”, the reporter asked.
“I think so, yes,” said Van Gaal.
For not wanting to elaborate much, Van Gaal said plenty. Clearly, he is not over that defeat, which in some respect is normal considering the stakes involved, but is also a little odd: the 72-year-old Van Gaal is no stranger to success or to losing in big moments.
Van Gaal has won 19 titles over the course of his career as a manager for clubs like Ajax, FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. He has twice led the Netherlands as a coach at a men’s World Cup, first in 2014 and most recently in Qatar. But it appears that Messi’s triumph in the Middle East has been permanently tattooed on Van Gaal’s consciousness. Messi became his nemesis. Remember, Argentina and Messi also defeated the Netherlands in a 2014 World Cup semifinal.
By any reasonable standard, Van Gaal’s claims are ridiculous. But let’s analyze them, just to rule out any validity.
‘But when you see how Argentina got their goals and how we got our goals…’
Argentina’s first goal of the quarterfinal came in the 35th minute. It is a goal that will live in Argentine football lore for eternity. Messi’s no-look pass to right fullback Nahuel Molina split six Dutch players, before Molina deftly pushed the ball past goalkeeper Andries Noppert. It was the embodiment of Messi’s prowess and the first hole in Van Gaal’s argument. There were no dark forces at play.
The Netherlands conceded again in the 73rd minute. Argentina was awarded a penalty after Marcos Acuña was fouled inside the box by Denzel Dumfries, and Messi converted his team’s third penalty of the World Cup. Argentina was awarded a total of five penalties in seven matches, and while the penalty call against Dumfries was soft, it was also fairly straightforward. Acuña baited Dumfries with a cut back at full speed. Dumfries’ trailing foot stabbed at Acuña just enough to make contact. Penalty.
‘Argentina players overstepped the mark and were not punished.’
Van Gaal has a leg to stand on here. In the 88th minute and after two consecutive aggressive tackles, Argentina midfielder Leandro Paredes fired the ball into the Dutch bench. This sparked a scuffle between the teams, and Paredes walked away with a yellow card. Seconds earlier, his mistimed tackle on Nathan Aké was a bookable offense that went unpunished.
That said, it was a testy and physical quarterfinal overall. Players from both teams used mind games and taunts to gain an advantage or send an intimidating message. There were no choir boys in this match. Spanish referee Antonio Mateo Lahoz was criticized by players from both teams and subsequently sent home by tournament officials amid all of the scrutiny.
“We were scared before the game because we knew what this was,” Messi said after the match. “I think FIFA must think about it, they cannot put a referee like that for these important games, for such a pivotal game, a referee who isn’t up to the task.”
‘Yeah, then I think it was all premeditated.’
If the 2022 World Cup was staged for Messi and Argentina to win, the script writers have a dark sense of humor. Argentina were humbled 2-1 by Saudi Arabia in their opening group stage match. The sky fell immediately on Messi and his teammates following one of the most surprising results in World Cup history. Argentina followed it up with wins over Mexico, Poland, Australia, the Netherlands, Croatia, and of course in an exhilarating final against France.
The 2022 World Cup was controversial not just due to Qatar’s human rights record and violations in the building of the infrastructure needed for the tournament, but also in the conspiracy and bribery it took for it to land there in the first place. Perhaps Van Gaal had that in the back of his mind when he made this assertion.
In considering it, the natural focus falls on the aforementioned five penalty kicks Argentina was awarded throughout the tournament. Some were more clear cut than others, but like so many penalty situations, they were also highly subjective.
Argentina’s first came against Saudi Arabia, when VAR ruled that Paredes was held and dragged down inside the box from a corner kick. Messi converted from the spot, but Argentina lost that game.
In Argentina’s second group stage match against Poland, VAR stepped in again to award Argentina a penalty, as Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny misjudged a cross meant for Messi and ended up smacking the Argentine captain unintentionally in the face. A harsh call, but not one Argentina even needed to win, since Szczęsny saved the penalty and Argentina scored twice to win 2-0.
The penalty against Croatia was perhaps the most controversial of Argentina’s five penalties. In on goal, Julian Alvarez poked the ball past Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livaković, who then collided with the Manchester City forward. The referee called a penalty, and did not use VAR to check his decision.
Those who believe it was not a penalty see a goalkeeper, Livaković, who stands his ground and is run into by the attacker. On the other hand, Livaković failed to get even the slightest of touches on the ball, which would’ve trickled into the goal had it not been cleared by Croatian center back Dejan Lovren. It’s a tight call, but hardly one that screams “premeditated.”
Finally, Angel Di Maria earned a penalty in the final against France. This in my opinion, was the softest penalty that Argentina was awarded, but Polish referee Szymon Marciniak didn’t hesitate. In a game as full of chaos as that one, are we really going to take one soft call as an indication of premeditation?
Former French international Patrice Evra responded to Van Gaal’s statement rather simply. “Messi carried Argentina,” he said. “People say Messi won the World Cup because he scored five penalties. I say you go and score those penalties.”
Van Gaal was way off base to suggest that the World Cup was rigged for Messi and Argentina. His comments had little substance and have done more to damage his reputation than strengthen his case for the impropriety that he alleges.
(Top photo: Liu Lu/VCG via Getty Images)