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Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during their Group D match against Nigeria at Saint Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.Alex Livesey/Getty Images

After Argentina’s implosion against Croatia, several of the team’s veteran stars reportedly went to the president of the national federation and asked him to fire their manager, Jorge Sampaoli.

Based on results to that point, Sampaoli’s main skill appeared to be squeezing into a child’s size medium T-shirt and then windmilling around on the touchline like a man trying to land a plane in a blizzard.

With his oddball selections (no manager has ever been more enamoured of soccer players who don’t actually play much soccer) and tendency to shift blame, he’d alienated half the team and the whole country.

Whatever the truth of how it went down, Sampaoli was still in charge by Tuesday. He proved what several other Argentines through history have learned: Occasionally, failed coups concentrate minds.

Argentina went through to the last 16 after a nervy 2-1 win over Nigeria. They have three people of increasing unlikelihood to thank for that: Lionel Messi, Marcos Rojo and a Turk, Cuneyt Cakir.

Everyone else ought to go off and give themselves a good talking to. Once they’ve done that, they should get together with a black hood and some zip ties and rendition Diego Maradona onto a transport plane home. Football’s South American Keith Richards has either been over- or underserved. It’s getting hard to tell which is which.

A few days ago, Croatia’s Luka Modric – who is not paid by the Argentinian football federation – did some consulting on their behalf: “Messi is an incredible player, but he can’t do everything alone.”

Tell that to his teammates. No, really. Tell them. It’s possible they haven’t heard that yet.

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Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli nervously paces the sideline on Tuesday.LEE SMITH/Reuters

For forever and a day, that’s the role Messi occupied in the Argentina setup: Everyone else shows up with hats, while he is expected to supply all the rabbits.

That problem was briefly solved on Tuesday and resulted in a Sistine Chapel of a goal. Ever Banega played him through with a long, lofted pass. Messi took the ball on his thigh, then onto his left foot and then in with his right. He did it without breaking from a dead sprint.

There may be more meaningful goals in this tournament, or more bring-you-out-of-your-seat goals, but there will not be a better goal. Ninety-five per cent of the players in Russia end up kneeing that ball into the second balcony. Messi made it look like he was being underhanded a hacky sack.

Nigeria tied it after Javier Mascherano went Greco-Roman in the penalty area, leading to a spot kick.

The winning goal came late from Rojo, a middling defender who lives in Manchester but cannot really be said to play there. This must have brought no small measure of satisfaction for Sampaoli, who continues to stick with a man nailed to the bench at his professional club.

After Rojo tallied, Messi leapt on his back and was piggybacked over to the corner for further celebrations. It was like a re-enactment of Christ riding a donkey into Jerusalem.

But before that happened, Cakir had his moment. It may quietly turn out to be one of the most pivotal at this World Cup.

The Turkish referee is renowned for two things: He is one of the world’s best and he is a by-the-book disciplinarian. This man flashes cards like he works at a downtown preschool.

With the game tied 1-1, Rojo – this was more his usual self – headed a ball onto his own outstretched hand in the penalty area. That’s not a penalty all the time, but you have seen it called.

It was certainly called a penalty on Monday, when a Moroccan headed the ball onto the hand of Portugal’s Cedric in an almost identical situation.

Cakir didn’t call Rojo’s touch a penalty when he saw it in real time. As with the Cedric incident, he was summoned back to the video screen to take a second look.

One of the great problems with VAR is that it takes an official’s good sense out of the equation. Some fouls are fouls, but not called fouls because they are too cheap to cost a team something as dear as the deciding goal.

No one could’ve credibly complained if Cakir had pointed to the spot. Instead, he waved it off again. He’d decided that he wasn’t going to be the guy to put a team out of the World Cup for so inconsequential an infraction. Hopefully, his courage is contagious.

Then on to Rojo’s unlikely strike, the equestrian act and the tears. The camera swung up to Maradona in the stands at that point. He was pogoing in place while giving someone below him – presumably enemy fans – a double-barrelled middle finger. With that guy, it’s hard to tell who he’s after.

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Diego Maradona watches the Argentinian national team from the stands on Tuesday.Sergio Perez/Reuters

Maradona was in a right state during the game – slow dancing with a Nigerian supporter in the lead-up; bug-eyed and frothing after Messi’s score; cat napping as the break approached; red-eyed and mean by the end. There seems to be a real fear among his retainers that he’s going to tip over a balustrade and flatten someone in the stands below.

This man-on-the-verge act has been going on forever, but never at this level of ambition. If I could, I’d subscribe to a channel that is all Diego, all the time – never mind the games.

While Maradona was ending things on a sour note, down on the field, Sampaoli was doing likewise. As the final whistle went, he stomped away without congratulating his players.

Maybe he was trying to avoid stealing the spotlight. Or maybe his enemies list needs polishing. Or perhaps he was off to the hotel to begin planning for Argentina’s next opponent, France (“Plan A: Give Lionel the ball; Plan B: See Plan A”).

Either way, he did not look happy.

For Sampaoli, Messi and the rest, Tuesday was not any sort of redemption. It was a brief ceasefire followed by a temporary reprieve.

Though they don’t play again for another four days, the fighting should be resuming any time now.

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