This time was supposed to be different. For Lionel Messi, this time was not supposed to end like all of the others, with those slumping shoulders, that distant stare, that hollow grimace.
Qatar was not supposed to be as bad as what happened to arguably the greatest player of all time in the colours of Barcelona on those nights in Rome and Liverpool and Lisbon, let alone in the albiceleste of Argentina in Rio de Janeiro. And, in a way, it wasn’t. It was worse.
Argentina arrived in Qatar with the sole ambition of ensuring that Messi’s final World Cup would be remembered as the one that bathed his legacy in the brilliant, golden glow only this tournament can confer. Instead, it must now face the haunting possibility that it will forever be synonymous with one of its darkest humiliations, one of the greatest upsets in tournament history.
For Argentina, losing to Saudi Arabia, 2-1, was not just a defeat; it was an embarrassment, an ignominy, a stigma scarred into Argentine skin in front of 88,000 people, streamed live on television and beamed around the world. By the end, as delirious Saudi substitutes swarmed onto the field, Argentina’s players seemed visibly diminished, their faces drawn, their eyes haunted.
None more so, of course, than Messi. He has worn that look more than he would like in recent years. It has become more familiar than might be expected for a player of his status, his legend.
The sunset of the most glittering career of all has been picked out in no small part in shadow: those traumatic defeats in his final years with Barcelona against Roma and Liverpool and Bayern Munich, the dreaded inevitability of disappointment snatched from the jaws of glory with Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid earlier this year.
And after each of them, that same dispirited silhouette – hands on hips, head bowed, eyes downcast as he walks slowly off the field – that he cut when the whistle blew at Lusail, the stadium that will host the final of Messi’s final World Cup next month. Argentina’s nightmare became flesh.
If anything, the pain of this will sting more than any of the others. Not just because of the opponent: an unheralded and unfancied Saudi team that had been cast as little more than a sacrificial lamb, advised before the tournament to focus more on “enjoying themselves” than winning by no less than their kingdom’s Crown, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, not a man who seems like the sort to believe that it’s really the taking part that counts.
The real difference, though, was Argentina itself. For the first time in years, the country had somehow concocted a national team that was not entangled in an intricate web of neuroses and complexes. Under Lionel Scaloni, the low-key coach who had initially taken the job on a temporary basis and proved surprisingly good at it, Argentina had fostered a system designed to provide an older Messi with the support he needed.
Since 2019, it had played 35 games and not lost any. More important, it had ended its generation-long wait for an international honour, capturing its first Copa America title since 1993 in the most satisfying way imaginable: by beating Brazil, in Brazil. It had followed that up by dismantling the European champion, Italy, in a game marketed as the Finalissima.
Argentina had the finest player on the planet – possibly the finest of all time – in a rich vein of form, a supremely gifted supporting cast and a vast army of fans at its back. The streets of Doha thronged with albiceleste jerseys and banners and flags. All of that has been the case for at least three World Cups, of course. The difference, this time, was that the team looked self-confident, assured, something close to serene.
It took no more than five minutes to break all of that apart. Argentina had dominated the first half – taking the lead through a penalty won, a little fortuitously, by Leandro Paredes and converted with precious little ceremony by Messi. That was as far as its good fortune ran – a further three goals were ruled out for offside, at least one of them extremely narrowly – but as the teams headed inside at the break, there seemed scant cause for concern.
Perhaps complacency explains what happened next: Argentina dozing as Saleh al-Shehri clipped home an equalizer, and then watching on powerlessly as Salem al-Dawsari danced through three challenges and curled a shot, its parabola picture-perfect, beyond the clawing grasp of Emiliano Martinez.
Saudi Arabia’s fans, bused in by the thousand from the border nearly 150 kilometres away, roared; Argentina’s stood, shell-shocked, the ghost of defeat to Cameroon in Milan in 1990 at their shoulder. The players, too, seemed unable to respond; this is not a team that in recent years has had much experience in recovering from setbacks.
And so, instead of keeping a cool head, slowly turning the screw on their tiring opponents, Argentina’s players fretted and frazzled and chased and hurried. There is a fine line between urgent and frantic, and Messi and his teammates fell firmly on the wrong side of it.
With half an hour to create a single chance for some of the finest forwards on the planet, Argentina generated nothing. Even Messi – a being seemingly hewed from pure, uncut poise – seemed afflicted, rushing his passes, missing his beats, fading from the game as the clock ticked rather than bending it to his will. Perhaps, by now, he has suffered these indignities enough to sense when one is coming. Perhaps he is in tune with the cruelty of fate.
All is not yet lost, of course. Argentina still has two games to avert disaster. Beat Mexico and Poland in the remaining two group games and, on the surface, losing to Saudi Arabia will have done no lasting damage. That defeat to Cameroon in 1990, after all, 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. It may be nothing more than a false start.
In the moment, as Messi and his teammates gathered in a tight bunch in the middle of the field, as if huddling together for safety and for security and warmth, it did not feel like that. Instead, it seemed as if something had come undone in the white heat of Lusail’s afternoon sun. This time was supposed to be different. All of a sudden, for Messi and for Argentina, it all felt exactly the same.