Lionel Messi and Argentina do what Neymar and Brazil could not at World Cup | Opinion

The outcomes cannot be more stark for Lionel Messi.

A win takes him one step closer to the World Cup title that has eluded him all these years. A loss means his illustrious career will forever have a gaping hole.

As Lautaro Martinez stepped to the spot for what could be Argentina's decisive penalty kick Friday night, Messi doubled over. It is agony, this fine line between joy and despair, one Messi has tread for four-plus World Cups now.

When Martinez buried his shot, a grin creased Messi's face. He pumped his fists at the jubilant Argentina fans before being swallowed up by his teammates.

The dream lives on, for at least one more game.

"There was a huge joy and a weight off our chest," Messi said after the win over the Netherlands, which sent Argentina into the semifinals. "We suffered. It was a very tough game, and we could have been out after being 2-0 ahead."

Argentina's Nahuel Molina, left, celebrates with Julian Alvarez, center, and Lionel Messi, right, after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between the Netherlands and Argentina, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
Argentina's Nahuel Molina, left, celebrates with Julian Alvarez, center, and Lionel Messi, right, after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup quarterfinal soccer match between the Netherlands and Argentina, at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, Friday, Dec. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

He need look no further than South American rival Brazil.

Like Argentina, Brazil came to this World Cup as a favorite. Even more so, with Neymar surrounded by a slew of young talent. But the Selecao are headed home, having blown a lead of their own and losing on penalties to Croatia earlier in the day.

Instead of ending their own drought, the five-time champions are out once again in the quarterfinals.

Brazil’s exit could open an opportunity for Argentina, too. Rather than facing Brazil in Tuesday's semifinals, Messi and the Albiceleste will play Croatia, a team that has been living and dying on penalties at this World Cup and the last.

But Messi and Argentina cannot afford to think that way.

For all his accomplishments in his club career -- Champions League titles, scoring records, an unprecedented seven Ballon d'Or trophies -- Messi has only played in one World Cup final. It was in 2014, after Argentina beat the Netherlands in the semifinals, also on penalties. Germany, Argentina's opponent in the final, was a buzzsaw at that tournament. But the loss was also a lesson that nothing is ever finished until the final whistle, be it in a game and in a tournament.

Messi and Argentina got a reminder of that Friday, up 2-0 with about 10 minutes left in overtime.

Messi had set up Argentina's first goal, showcasing his wizardry in the 35th when he threaded a no-look pass through heavy traffic to Nahuel Molina. He converted a penalty in the 73rd, freezing Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert with the softest of touches.

MORE: Once World Cup favorites, Brazil's talent fails to advance past Croatia in quarterfinals

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But nothing in this tournament has come easy for Argentina, beginning with their stunning loss to Saudi Arabia in the opener. And just like Brazil in the first quarterfinal, Argentina couldn’t hold the lead in the dying minutes of regulation.

Wout Weghorst scored on a header in the 83rd. Then, in the 101st, the Dutch dribbled a free kick along the ground and through the wall, and Weghorst picked it up, tapping it in for the tying goal.

"It’s fantastic if you're able to equalize if you trail by two goals," Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said.

Unlike Brazil, which was at a decided disadvantage to Croatia, emotionally and tactically, it was Argentina that had the upper hand. Noppert had not started for the Netherlands before this World Cup, making this his first penalty shootout, while Emiliano Martinez thrives on pressure situations like this.

Martinez said something he overheard van Gaal say only fueled the Argentina players more.

"I heard van Gaal saying, 'We’ve got an advantage if we go to penalties. If we go to penalties, we win,'" Martinez said. "I feel he needs to keep his mouth shut."

Sure enough, Martinez blocked the first penalty, by Virgil van Dijk. Unlike Brazil, which chose to save Neymar for a decisive fifth kick that never came, Messi took Argentina’s first penalty.

And just like in regulation, he soft-touched it past Noppert. The Dutch goalkeeper at least moved this time, but it was the wrong way. As the ball settled into the net, giving Argentina an early advantage, Messi held his arms out wide.

The Netherlands had two misses and Argentina one when Martinez stepped to the spot. All he had to do was make the penalty, and Argentina -- and Messi -- would move on.

Miss it and, well, nothing in soccer is guaranteed. Even for the greatest to ever play the game.

Not winning a World Cup would not diminish what Messi has accomplished. The magic he's spun with his feet, the spectacular goals he's scored, the accolades he's piled up -- nothing can ever take that away. People across the world will still wear his No. 10 jersey, and he would remain one of the few common grounds to be found across the globe.

But the greats who are also World Cup champions are seen in a different, brighter light. Pele. Maradona. The original Ronaldo. For Messi to not be part of that pantheon would feel hollow, for him and all fans of the game.

That dim prospect can be put off for another day, however, because Argentina has advanced. The other favorites are beginning to fade away. But Messi plays on.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lionel Messi, Argentina live to play another day at World Cup