Gil LeBreton

Messi’s late goal spoils Mexico party in Arlington

Argentina superstar Lionel Messi, right, tries to get past Mexico’s Miguel Layun during the first half of Tuesday’s international friendly at AT&T Stadium.
Argentina superstar Lionel Messi, right, tries to get past Mexico’s Miguel Layun during the first half of Tuesday’s international friendly at AT&T Stadium. Special to the Star-Telegram

He was supposed to play only “20-25 minutes,” said a guy who said he had talked to a guy who had talked to the Argentina team at Monday’s practice.

But blessedly, Lionel Messi, the world’s most gifted soccer player, played to the end Tuesday night.

Rallying from a two-goal deficit to Mexico in the match’s final five minutes, Messi stopped a lob pass with his chest and then booted home the equalizer from the left corner of the penalty area in the 89th minute to deliver Argentina a 2-2 draw.

The first thing you notice in person about Messi is his size.

In the sport of soccer, he is a Goliath — some say the best that ever was.

But on the broad playing pitch, he is David-sized. A shortstop’s body with feet that always seem perfectly placed and eyes that seem to see what others can’t.

It is because of Messi’s compact height — 5 feet, 7 inches, by most accounts — that he left his native Argentina at age 13 and signed — on a paper napkin— with FC Barcelona.

Messi had been diagnosed at 10 with a growth hormone deficiency and was taking shots. Barcelona agreed to pay for the teenager’s continued treatment; his favorite club back home, River Plate, would not.

Messi’s dual loyalties, both to Argentina and to the famous Spanish club he plays for, are what led him to AT&T Stadium on Tuesday night.

13 Age when Messi signed to play for FC Barcelona

All the great ones play Jerry Jones’ stadium.

Paul McCartney. George Strait. U2. The Rolling Stones. Beyoncé. Taylor Swift.

The NCAA Basketball Final Four. College football’s championship game. Manny Pacquiao. The NBA All-Star Game.

And now Messi, the Sinatra in knee socks.

Billed as a friendly, an international exhibition, it was hard to imagine these two passionate soccer nations treating the match as just another tuneup. Mexico was without midfielder Tecatito — “Jesus Corona” in your program — and the Argentine roster was missing notables with obligations to their English and French teams.

Messi, the perfect No. 10, appears to turn on an Argentine dime. He changes directions, with his footwork allowing him to avoid tackles.

But never mind his spectacular match-knotting goal. Messi’s presence alone validated the night. It certainly captured the Mexican team’s attention.

The word from the Argentine camp was that the great Messi would make a cameo appearance, at best. Maybe only play a half of a half.

But when the two sides returned after halftime Tuesday, with Mexico leading 1-0 on a penalty kick by the opportunistic Chicharito (Javier Hernandez), Messi was still in the lineup, doing his No. 10 thing.

In soccer, if you can’t quite figure out what all the passing and bumping in the midfield is about, watch the No. 10s.

The jersey number is usually reserved for a team’s best player. Often, its most effective playmaker. Sometimes, its best goal scorer.

A point of reference for Rangers fans: Michael Young. The perfect baseball No. 10.

And Messi wears his No. 10 like a crown.

He scans the pitch in front of him and sometimes, it seems, even behind himself. He appears to turn on an Argentine dime. He changes directions, with his footwork allowing him to avoid tackles.

His coach once said that Messi runs faster with the ball than without it, and in person that doesn’t seem as silly a claim as it sounds. Messi is an attacker, not a lurker.

Upstaged on the marquee, perhaps, the Mexico national team easily held its usual upper hand in the stadium grandstands. This was the fifth time that the national side, El Tri, has played at Owner Jones’ stadium.

Their crowd here is always festive, often costumed and unshakably loyal.

They roared when Chicharito scored on a penalty kick in the match’s 19th minute. The kick came after Mexico’s Israel Jimenez was tackled by Nicolas Otamendi at the edge of the penalty area.

Hector Herrera’s straight-on blast from the penalty arc in the 70th minute boosted Mexico’s lead to 2-0.

But Messi and Argentina were not done. Sergio Aguero scored in the 85th minute to cut the deficit to 2-1, then Messi scored the equalizer on a spectacular goal in the 89th minute as the friendly ended in a 2-2 draw.

It was Mexico’s party. But Lionel Messi’s night.

Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7797

Twitter: @gilebreton

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