Lionel Messi’s eldest son, Thiago, is obsessed with winning the World Cup for Argentina. So much so, he spent the last few months asking his father question after question about the tournament. When does Argentina play? Who are they against? What will happen if they top the group or, God forbid, finish as runners-up.
“He is worried about that,” Messi confided to the Argentinian newspaper Ole.
“It’s true that he puts me under a lot of pressure.” Winning the Copa America against Brazil in Brazil at the Maracana 18 months ago should have relieved Messi. “It really reduces the tension,” he claimed as Argentina prepared for their World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia in Lusail. He also managed a streak of 36 games without defeat, the longest in Argentina’s history.
For many people, Lionel Scaloni’s side landed in Qatar as favourites. Only the former defender did not see it that way. “We are not obliged to win the World Cup,” insisted Scaloni. “We are wrong if we believe that. We have to respect the other teams. There are no less than eight or 10 national teams that can win the World Cup, most of which are European. Big favorites don’t usually win.”
At home, the media wondered if this was a cabulero saying — a superstitious man who did not want to tempt fate. Scaloni, after all, had been here before. He was a member of the Argentina national team that went to the 2002 World Cup undefeated under Marcelo Bielsa. Painfully and to everyone’s surprise, they were eliminated in the group stage.
Now Scaloni is contemplating a terrible 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 crept away, almost unfathomable. He stared into the distance and then at his boots, shyly. That’s not how he wanted to start his last World Cup, “my last chance to realize my dream, the dream we all want”. The dream is now threatened. “No excuses,” grimaced Messi.
Argentina can’t look at the linesman and goals Messi and Lautaro Martinez ruled out for offside. They can only look at themselves. “Now we will have to prove that we are the right group,” Messi said. A group he compared favorably to the one that reached the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014. “Think positive” was the headline in La Nacion in the run-up to the game. Why not Argentina? But morale around the team was hit hard at the pre-World Cup training camp in the United Arab Emirates. Nico Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa have been forced to withdraw from the team due to injuries, and Scaloni admitted he has a few “small problems”. The fitness of players like Cristian Romero, Leandro Paredes and Angelo Di Maria, a trio of influential starters, was a concern. Doubt began to arise.
You wouldn’t notice as much in the first half against Saudi Arabia, though. Messi’s early penalty was nerveless and his pace on the ball illustrated his poise and control. It came so early in the game that the prospect of him scoring again, and again, and again to match Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time World Cup goalscorer didn’t seem out of the realm of possibility. “Lionel has every chance to pass me,” said Batigol on the morning of the match. “And I hope they do.”
But the linesman flag (or rather semi-automatic technology) plagued Messi and his strike partner Lautaro. One after another the goals were recorded. Psychologically it must have been a source of frustration. But Messi refused to put it in mitigation. “So many things are said about VAR; that’s what happened today and that’s it, there are no excuses,” he said.
In the end, it was Messi who provided the ball for Saleh Al-Shehri’s equalizer and Argentina went into a brief but critical state of shock afterwards. “It’s hard to assimilate,” Scaloni tried to explain, “because we conceded two goals in four minutes, in which there were only two shots on goal.” The Argentine fans felt that the team needed them. They were strangely overpowered during the game. It was a different atmosphere from 2014 when they marched into 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 start to finish as the South American champions blew away Italy, the European champions.
When Messi opened the scoring, it was as if the fans were too used to it. When Al-Shehri equalised, the Saudi supporters could not believe it and felt history. Lusail began to feel like Riyadh. This is how home advantage feels in the Arab world and the Saudis counted on it, taking advantage of Argentina’s uncertainty. Leandro Paredes’ kick from the edge of the penalty area was celebrated as a goal. The addition of Nicolas Otamendi, intent on easing the pressure in his own area, only boosted it, and when Salem Al-Dawsari scored the winner in the Argentina goal through Emi Martinez – Emiliano Martinez, the stop-gap penalty hero at Copa America 2021 – it was the zenith of the Saudi momentum. The game was turned on its head five minutes from time, perhaps too soon to raise questions about the 44-year-old Scaloni’s leadership, 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 outcome should not cloud our judgment. Argentina created enough chances to get a point or more against Saudi Arabia and while much was made of Giovanni Lo Celso’s absence – the Villarreal midfielder was Argentina’s top assist in qualifying and combined well with Messi – the lack of threat was not the Argentine’s problem. They won the xG battle 2.23 to 0.14. Let’s not forget that Nico Tagliafico missed a close-range chance, and Abdullah Al-Amri’s goal-line clearance made him a hero for his Saudi team-mates. For Messi and Lautaro, it was a game of inches.
Scaloni and his players now have to 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 gotten off on the wrong foot before. They were seeded when Cameroon and Francois Omam-Biyik upset Diego Maradona and co in the first leg of Italy ’90 at the San Siro. That did not stop them from reaching the final. Losing to Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to now. “We have to continue,” Scaloni said. At 35 years old, Messi has no choice if he wants to achieve his dream and that of his boyfriend, Thiago.
(Photo: ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP via Getty Images)