Argentina started their World Cup campaign as a firm favourite to win, with Lionel Messi looking for his final chance at a shot of the trophy. But now, the team may struggle to advance…
Qatar was supposed to be different. For Lionel Messi, the 2022 World Cup was not supposed to end like the others, with those slumping shoulders, distant stare, and hollow grimace that the football legend has donned more times than he has wished.
Qatar was not supposed to be as bad as what happened to arguably the greatest player of all time in the Barcelona stripes on those nights in Rome, Lisbon, and Liverpool, never mind what happened to the national team in the 2014 World Cup final in Rio. But in a way, Qatar was worse.
When Argentina arrived in Qatar, they came with the sole ambition of ensuring that Messi’s final World Cup campaign would be the one that bathed his legacy in a brilliant, golden glow. A victory as prestigious and proud as the World Cup would cement Messi’s legacy, finishing his career with the ultimate triumph.
But now, the team and nation must face the haunting possibility that this tournament may be one of their darkest humiliations and one of the tournament’s greatest upsets in history.
For Argentina, losing 2-1 to Saudi Arabia was not only a defeat, but it was also an embarrassment. A loss that would be scarred into the skin of the 88,000 Argentines who watched on in horror from their seats at Lusail Stadium, and the millions more watching on screens across the globe.
As the final whistle blew the delirious Saudi substitutes swarmed the pitch, the Argentinian players looked visibly diminished, faces drawn, eyes haunted.
By none more so than the legendary Argentine captain, Lionel Messi, who has worn that look far more times in recent years than he would have liked.
As the sun begins to set on his glittering career, these traumatic defeats in his final years with Barcelona against Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich, and glory snatched from his fingertips earlier this year at Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid, may haunt his career.
After each defeat he displays the same dispirited silhouette – head bowed, hands on hips, eyes lowered as he walks slowly off the pitch – which he adopted as the final whistle blew at Lusail. The horror of Argentina’s nightmare becoming reality.
If anything, the pain of this defeat may sting more than the others, and not just because of the opponent: the unfancied and almost forgotten Saudi Arabia team who were considered nothing more than a sacrificial lamb before entering this tournament, who were advised to focus on “enjoying themselves” rather than expecting triumphant wins by their own crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The real difference, however, was Argentina itself. For the first time in years, the country had built a team that was not entangled in a series of complex neuroses. Under Lionel Scaloni – a man who took on the role of Head Coach temporarily, but proved to be rather good at it – the Argentinian national side had fostered a system designed to provide the aging Messi with the support he needed.
Since 2019, the side has played 35 games and has not lost a single match. More importantly, it had ended it’s generation-long wait for an international honor, winning it’s first Copa América since 1993 in the most satisfying way possible: beating Brazil in Brazil. The team then went on to beat the European champions Italy.
Argentina also has the finest player on the planet – possibly of all time – on their side, the great Lionel Messi in fine form, with the great support of players and a vast army of fans at their backs, it seemed like Argentina were on the cusp of greatness.
The streets of Doha thronged with blue and white striped jerseys, banners and flags, as was the case with the last three World Cups. But something was different about 2022. This time the team looked self-confident assured and something close to serene.
However, it took no more than 5 minutes for that all to fall apart…
Argentina had dominated the first half, taking the lead with a penalty which was won – by chance – by Leandro Paredes and converted, with very little ceremony, by Messi.
But that was as much good fortune as Argentina would get as a further three goals were ruled out for offside. As the teams headed inside at the break, there seemed to be no cause for concern, yet…
Perhaps it was Argentina’s complacency that explains what happened next as the team seemed to be almost dozing as Saleh al-Shehri scored an equalizer, as they watched on powerlessly as Salem al-Dawsari danced past three challenges to score an almost picture-perfect goal beyond the clawing grasp of Emilianio Martínez.
With half an hour left to create a chance for some of the finest forwards on the planet, Argentina came up short. Even Messi seemed to rush his passes, miss his beats, and fade from the game as the minutes ticked away.
But all is not lost yet, as Argentina still has two games to avert disaster and spare further embarrassment. If they beat Mexico and Poland in their final two group games, on the surface, losing to Saudi Arabia will have done no lasting damage.
After all, the 1990 shock defeat against Cameroon did not prevent Diego Maradona from leading his team all the way to the World Cup Final.
This is not the end of Messi’s tournament and may be nothing more than a false start.