Alexis Mac Allister began to shake the first time he met Lionel Messi. He started to second-guess himself, too.
‘I didn’t know if I give the (high) five or not,’ the midfielder once joked. These days, the nerves have died down. So has any uncertainty about how to interact with his Argentina captain.
On occasion, it has taken only a look for Mac Allister and Messi to be on the same page. The instructions from Argentina’s talisman can be simple enough: run.
Alexis Mac Allister began shaking the first time he met Lionel Messi but any uncertainty about how to interact with the Argentina captain has now died down and he is a key part of the team
Central midfielder Mac Allister has been an important cog in his side’s World Cup campaign
And that means, by Sunday evening in Doha, there is a decent chance Mac Allister’s legs will, in fact, be trembling once more. Such has been the slog of the past few weeks.
Should all Argentina’s graft and noise and colour end in World Cup glory, the midfielder may again be lost for what to say or do.
But neither Messi nor anyone back home will be in any doubt about one thing: the beat of this last dance has been set by the likes of Mac Allister and his terrier-like qualities.
At Premier League Brighton, they reckon the intelligent, technically gifted star could do a job for the Seagulls anywhere on the pitch
The Argentina captain has been carried to the brink of immortality on the backs — well, the legs — of his team-mates. They have worked while Messi has walked. They have pressed while he has probed. All so they can watch while he waves his wand.
There is, of course, far more than grit and groundwork to Mac Allister. At 23, this product of Argentinos Juniors — where Diego Maradona was carved — is blessed with intelligence and technical brilliance. At Brighton, he has been used in different roles. They reckon he could do a job anywhere on the pitch.
In Qatar, he scored his maiden international goal to help Argentina beat Poland and reach the last 16. In this team, though, in this World Cup, everyone is Messi’s supporting cast. They knew that before they landed.
‘He’s our most important player,’ Mac Allister said. ‘The World Cup will be really important for everyone because we want him to lift the cup.’ One more step. One more chapter in the amazing history of the Mac Allister family.
They have roots in Ireland and Italy; some of the family still live near Dublin. Recent generations have, however, become a tie that binds two great strands of South America’s football tapestry: Messi and Maradona.
A few decades before Alexis played with Messi, Carlos Mac Allister was a team-mate of Maradona. They would travel the world together.
‘Diego was a monster, I was a normal player. We were close; he looked after me,’ Carlos told the Guardian this week.
A few decades before Alexis played with Messi, his dad Carlos Mac Allister (right) was a team-mate of of another Argentina legend, Diego Maradona (left) – they travelled the world together
Colo (or ‘ginger’, a nickname passed down to Alexis until Messi put a stop to it) only played for Argentina a few times, including the play-offs for the 1994 World Cup, when Maradona returned on the condition his red-haired enforcer was with him.
So Mac Allister’s was a supporting role then and now. He and Alexis’s two older brothers — Kevin and Francis, both footballers back home — have been following Argentina in Qatar.
There are distant relatives watching with interest, too. Irish media tracked Mac Allister’s family tree to Donabate, north of Dublin. The first Mac Allisters left for Argentina in 1865, apparently.
They settled in Pergamino but Alexis was born 300 miles away, in Santa Rosa. Recently, splits have developed down the bloodlines: Mac Allister and his father disagree over who is better. Messi or Maradona.
Messi can strengthen his case on Sunday, filling the final hole in his trophy cabinet at 35. Mac Allister will turn 24 on Christmas Eve. And then resume his duties at Brighton.
Now the 23-year-old is set to start for Lionel Scaloni’s side in the World Cup final on Sunday
His debut came in March 2020, their final game before the country was locked down. Those early days were marked by struggle. He ‘suffered and cried’ with homesickness.
He had trouble with the physicality and the intensity of the Premier League. But at Brighton, there was never any doubt about his ability. And Mac Allister has become a pivotal player.
His roots remain unmistakable: the midfielder will light up the barbecue even in winter, and sip his mate tea. This quiet, humble kid shares his father’s taste in the tackle, too.
‘He doesn’t say much but what he does say is definitely worth listening to,’ a source says. ‘He knows football better than anybody.’
Is it any wonder? Given, as kids, the Mac Allister brothers would be asked to provide scouting reports for their dad. Carlos still analyses their performances, too. Good luck finding fault with the last few.