Lionel Messi’s eldest son Thiago is obsessed with Argentina winning the World Cup. So much so that he had been asking his father question after question about the tournament for the past few months. When will Argentina play? Who are they against? What if they top the group or, heaven forbid, finish as runners-up?
“He’s worried about it,” Messi told Argentina’s Ole newspaper.
“The truth is he’s putting me under a lot of pressure.” Messi’s Copa America title win against Brazil at the Maracana 18 months earlier was supposed to lighten Messi’s weight. “It really reduces the stress,” he said as Argentina prepared for their World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia in Lucknow. Argentina also had the longest unbeaten run in history at 36 matches.
For many people, Lionel Scaloni’s side were touching favorites in Qatar. Only the former defender did not see it that way. “We are not bound to win a World Cup,” insisted Scaloni. “If we believe that, we are wrong. We must respect other groups. There are no less than eight or ten national teams that can win the World Cup, and the majority of them are European. Big favorites don’t usually win.
Journalists who went home wondered if this was it Cabulero Speaking – a superstitious man who did not want to tempt fate. Scaloni, after all, has been here before. He was part of the Argentina team that went on a long unbeaten run under Marcelo Bielsa to the 2002 World Cup. Painfully, and to everyone’s surprise, they were eliminated in the group stage.
Now Scaloni is contemplating a terrifying repeat. “It’s a sad day,” he said in disbelief after Saudi Arabia came back from behind to complete one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Messi was out of sight, almost unimaginable. He stared into the distance and then looked down at his boots. This is not how he wanted to start his last World Cup, “my last chance to fulfill my dream, the dream we all follow”. A dream has now been shattered. “No excuses,” Messi scowled.
Argentina can’t look at the linesman and Messi and Lautaro Martinez have goals ruled out for offside. They can only look at themselves. “Now we have to prove that we are a real team,” Messi said. A team he compared favorably with the team that reached the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014. “Think positive” was the headline of La Nacion. Why not Argentina? But during a pre-World Cup training camp in the United Arab Emirates, the morale around the team had taken a hit. Nico Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa were forced out of the squad due to injury and Scaloni admitted there were some “small problems”. The fitness of the strong opening trio of Cristiano Romero, Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria was a concern. Doubts began to arise.
However, you won’t get much attention in the first half against Saudi Arabia. Messi’s early penalty was nervous, and the speed of the ball showed his poise and control. It came so early in the game that the prospect of him scoring again alongside Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup seemed beyond the realm of possibility. “Lionel has every chance to pass me,” Batigol said on the morning of the match. “And I hope he does.”
But the linesman’s flag (or rather the semi-automated technique) tormented Messi and his strike partner Lautaro. One after another the goals came out. Psychologically it must be a source of frustration. But Messi denied getting into it as mitigation. “A lot of things are said about VAR; That’s how it happened today, that’s how it is, there are no excuses,” he said.
It was Messi who eventually provided the ball for Saleh Al-Sherri’s equaliser, and Argentina suffered a brief but critical shock afterwards. “It’s hard to digest,” Scaloni tried to explain, “we conceded two goals in four minutes, with only two shots on target.” Argentina fans felt they were needed in the team. They had been strangely underwhelmed during the match. It was a different vibe from 2014, when they rolled into Rio en masse and sang at Brazil’s expense. A contrast to May’s Finalissima, when they took over Wembley as the South American champions blew away European champions Italy, beating their drums and jumping up and down from kick-off to full-time.
When Messi opened the goal, the fans were used to it. When Al-Shehri leveled, the Saudi supporters couldn’t believe it and felt history. Lucelle began to feel like Riyad. This is what home advantage feels like in the Arab world and the Saudis are counting on it, capturing Argentina’s uncertainty. A sliced clearance by Leandro Paredes on the edge of his box was celebrated like a goal. A pass intended to relieve Nicolas Otamendi’s pressure in his own area intensified it, and when Salem Al-Dawsari slotted the winner past Amy Martinez in the Argentina goal – Emiliano Martinez, the penalty shootout hero who stopped everything at the 2021 Copa America. Peak of Saudi momentum. The game rolled on in five minutes, perhaps too quickly to raise questions about the 44-year-old Scaloni’s game management, and the triple substitution of Romero, Paredes and Di Maria followed the Saudis’ second goal, no doubt transmitting a sense of dread.
However, the result should not cloud our judgment. Argentina created enough chances to score a point or more against Saudi Arabia and while much has been made of Giovanni Lo Celso’s absence – the Villarreal midfielder was Argentina’s top assist provider in qualifying and links well with Messi – Argentina were not lacking in threat. problem. They won the xG battle 2.23 to 0.14. Not to forget Nico Tagliafico missed a point-blank chance and Abdullah Al-Amri’s goal-line clearance made him a hero to his Saudi team-mates. It was a game of inches for Messi and Lautaro.
Scaloni and his players now have to drown out the noise around them. Easier said than done when Poland and Mexico come next. But history tells us that Argentina has gotten off on the wrong foot before. Cameroon and Francois Omam-Biike were the holders when they upset Diego Maradona and co in Italy’s ’90 opener at the San Siro. That didn’t stop them from reaching the finals. Saudi Arabia does not need to lose now. “We have to move forward,” Scaloni said. Messi, 35, has no choice but to fulfill his and his boy Thiago’s dream.
(Photo: ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP via Getty Images)