Lionel Messi’s eldest son Thiago is obsessed with Argentina winning the World Cup. So much so, he’s spent the past few months asking his father questions about the tournament. When does Argentina play? Who are they up against? What if they top the group or, heaven forbid, finish runners-up.
“He’s worried about it,” Messi confided to Argentinian newspaper Ole.
“The truth is, it puts a lot of pressure on me.” Winning the Copa América against Brazil in Brazil at the Maracana 18 months ago was supposed to relieve Messi. “This really takes the tension down,” he claimed as Argentina prepared for their World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia in Lusail. A 36-game unbeaten streak, the longest in Argentina’s history, did as well.
For many people, Lionel Scaloni’s team went to Qatar as favourites. Except the former defender didn’t see it that way. “We are not bound to win a World Cup,” Scaloni insisted. “We are wrong if we believe that. We have to respect other teams. There are no fewer than eight or 10 national teams that can win the World Cup, the majority of which are European. Big favorites don’t usually win.”
Back home the media wondered if this was a Cabulero speaking — a prudent man who did not wish to tempt fate. Scaloni, after all, has been here before. He was part of the Argentina squad that went to the 2002 World Cup on a long unbeaten run under Marcelo Bielsa. Painfully and to everyone’s surprise, they were eliminated in the group stage.
Now Scaloni is considering a terrifying repeat. “It’s a sad day,” he said, in disbelief, after Saudi Arabia came from behind to complete one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Messi left, almost undiscovered. He stared off into the distance and then at his boots, leering. That’s not how he wanted to start his last World Cup, “my last chance to realize my dream, the dream we’re all looking for.” A dream now in jeopardy. “There are no excuses,” Messi grimaced.
Argentina can’t look past the referee and goals ruled out for offside by Messi and Lautaro Martinez. They can only look at themselves. “We will now have to prove that we are a real team,” Messi said. A group that compared favorably to the one that reached the World Cup final in Brazil in 2014. “Think positive” was the headline at La Nacion in the build-up to the game. Why not Argentina? But morale around the team had been hit hard at a pre-World Cup training camp in the United Arab Emirates. Nico Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa were forced out of the squad through injury and Scaloni admitted he had a few “small problems”. The fitness of players such as Cristiano Romero, Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria, a trio of important starters, was a concern. Doubt began to build.
However, you wouldn’t have noticed as much in the first half against Saudi Arabia. Messi’s early penalty was flawless, the pace on the ball indicative of his poise and control. He came into the game so quickly that the prospect of scoring again and again and again to match Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time leading scorer at the World Cup did not seem beyond the realm of possibility. “Lionel has every chance to pass me,” said Batigol on the morning of the race. “And I hope he does.”
But the lineman’s flag (or rather semi-automated technology) was tormenting Messi and his strike partner Lautaro. One goal after another was disallowed. Psychologically it must have been a source of frustration. But Messi refused to enter it as mitigation. “So much is being said about VAR. today it happened like that and finally, there are no excuses,” he said.
Eventually it was Messi who provided the ball for Saleh Al-Shehri’s equaliser, and Argentina then went into a brief but crucial state of shock. “It’s hard to digest,” Scaloni tried to explain, “because in four minutes we conceded two goals, on just two shots on goal.” Argentina fans felt their team needed them. They were surprisingly sluggish during the game. It was a different atmosphere from 2014 when they entered Rio en masse and sang songs at Brazil’s expense. It was different from the Finalissima in May when they took over Wembley, banging their drums and jumping up and down from the kick-off at full-time as the South American champions blew away European champions Italy.
When Messi opened the scoring, it was as if the fans were very used to it. When Al-Shehri leveled, the Saudi supporters could not believe it and felt the history. Lucail began to feel like Riyadh. That’s home advantage in the Arab world and the Saudis made it count, taking advantage of Argentina’s uncertainty. The dismissal of Leandro Paredes on the edge of his large area was celebrated as a goal. A pass from Nicolas Otamendi intended to relieve the pressure in his own area only increased it and when Salem Al-Dawsari slotted a winner past Emi Martinez in the Argentina goal — Emiliano Martinez, the hero of proceedings penalty that stopped everything at the 2021 Copa America — it was the zenith of Saudi momentum. The game was turned on its head in five minutes, perhaps too soon for questions to be raised about the 44-year-old Scaloni’s game management, even if the triple substitution of Romero, Paredes and Di Maria that followed the Saudis’ second goal undoubtedly conveyed a sense of panic.
However, the result should not cloud our judgment. Argentina created enough chances to get a point or more against Saudi Arabia and while much has been made of the absence of Giovanni Lo Celso – the Villarreal midfielder was Argentina’s top assist provider in qualifying and combines well with Messi – the lack of threat was not Argentina’s problem. They won the xG battle 2.23 to 0.14. Let’s not forget that Nico Tagliafico missed a point-blank chance and Abdulelah Al-Amri’s dismissal made him a hero for his Saudi team-mates. For Messi and Lautaro it was a game of inches.
Scaloni and his players must now drown out the noise around them. That’s easier said than done when Poland and Mexico are next. But history tells us that Argentina has been wrong in the past. They were the holders when Cameroon and Francois Omam-Biyik upset Diego Maradona and co in the opening game of Italia ’90 at the San Siro. It didn’t stop them from reaching the final then. Losing to Saudi Arabia is not necessary now either. “We have to keep going,” Scaloni said. At 35, Messi has no other choice if he wants to fulfill his and his son Thiago’s dream.
(Photo: ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP via Getty Images)