Lionel Messi’s eldest son, Thiago, is very concerned about Argentina winning the World Cup. In fact, he spent the last few months asking his father question after question about the competition. When does Argentina play? Who are they against? What if they are ahead of the pack or, heaven forbid, finish second.
“He is worried about it,” Messi told Argentine newspaper Ole.
The truth is that you put me under a lot of pressure. Winning the Copa America against Brazil in Brazil at the Maracana 18 months ago should have been a relief for Messi. “That really eases the tension,” he said as Argentina prepared for their World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia in Lusail. A 36-match unbeaten run, the longest in Argentina’s history, did as well.
For many, Lionel Scaloni’s side struck Qatar as favourites. Only the first defender doesn’t see it that way. “We don’t have to win the World Cup,” Scaloni insisted. “We are wrong to believe that. We have to respect other groups. No fewer than eight or 10 national teams can win the World Cup, most of which are European. Major elections are often unsuccessful. ”
Back home the media wondered if this is Cabulero to speak – a superstitious man who did not want to test the future. In fact, Scaloni has been here before. He was a member of the Argentina team that went to the 2002 World Cup on a long undefeated run under Marcelo Bielsa. Sadly, and to everyone’s surprise, they were kicked out of the group.
Now Scaloni is thinking about a repeat of the horror. “It’s a sad day,” he said, in a state of disbelief, after Saudi Arabia came from behind to complete one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. Messi let himself go, almost impossible. He looked away, then looked at his shoes, which were sheep. This is not how he wanted his last World Cup to start, “my last chance to fulfill my dream, the dream we all want”. The dream has been compromised. “There are no excuses,” Messi lamented.
Argentina will not look at the player and the goals that Messi and Lautaro Martinez had ruled out for offside. They can only look at themselves. “Now we will have to prove that we are a real team,” Messi said. The team he compared well to the one that reached the final of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. “Think right” was La Nacion’s motto in the build-up to the game. Why not Argentina? But the mood around the team had hit hard in the pre-World Cup training camp in the United Arab Emirates. Nico Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa were forced to withdraw from the team due to injury and Scaloni admitted he had a few “small problems”. The well-being of players such as Cristiano Romero, Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria, three influential players, was a concern. Doubt began to creep in.
However, you wouldn’t have noticed so much in the first half against Saudi Arabia. Messi’s first strike was unnerving, the speed of the ball showing his poise and control. It came so early in the game that the prospect of him scoring again, again, and again, and matching Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s top scorer at the World Cup was You don’t seem to go beyond the realm of possibility. “Lionel has every chance to pass me,” Batigol said on the morning of the match. “And I hope you will.”
But the linesman’s flag (or semi-automated technology) tormented Messi and his strike partner Lautaro. One goal after another was cancelled. Psychologically it must have been a source of confusion. But Messi refused to enter it as a reduction. “There is a lot of talk about VAR; today it happened that way, it’s just like that, there are no reasons,” he said.
It was Messi who eventually provided the ball for Saleh Al-Shehri’s equalizer and Argentina then went into a short but critical period. Scaloni tried to explain: “It is difficult to agree with that, because after four minutes we had scored two goals, which were only two shots on target.” The Argentine fans felt that the team needed them. They were spectacularly defeated during the game. It was a different vibe than in 2014 when they entered Rio in droves and sang songs at Brazil’s expense. It was different from the Finalissima in May when they won at Wembley, beating their own drums and jumping up and down from the kick-off to full time as the South American champions blew away Italy, champions of Europe.
When Messi opened the scoring, it was as if the fans had become very used to it. When Al-Shehri scored, the Saudi supporters were in disbelief and heard history. Lusail began to feel like Riyadh. This is what the home advantage of the Arab world feels like and the Saudis made it strong, holding Argentina’s instability. Leandro Paredes’ clearance on the edge of his own box was celebrated as a goal. The flow that Nicolas Otamendi intended to relieve the pressure in his home area intensified, and when Salem Al-Dawsari pulled the winner past Emi Martinez in the Argentine goal – Emiliano Martinez, the hero of the penalty that stopped everything in the 2021 Copa America – was. the peak of Saudi power. The game changed after five minutes, too soon to question the 44-year-old Scaloni’s control of the game, although triple substitutions of Romero, Paredes and Di Maria following the Saudis’ second goal undoubtedly conveyed a sense of panic.
However, the result should not cloud our judgment. Argentina created enough chances to score a point or more against Saudi Arabia and although much has been made of the absence of Giovanni Lo Celso – the Villarreal player was Argentina’s main contributor in qualifying and combined well with Messi – lack of threat was not Argentina. problem. They won the xG battle 2.23 to 0.14. Let’s not forget Nico Tagliafico missed an empty chance and Abdulelah Al-Amri’s goal line clearance made him a hero to his Saudi teammates. For Messi and Lautaro, it was a game of inches.
Scaloni and his players must now turn off the noise around them. Easier said than done as Poland and Mexico will follow. But history tells us that Argentina has gotten off on the wrong foot before. They were in charge when Cameroon and Francois Omam-Biyik upset Diego Maradona and played in the first game of Italia ’90 at San Siro. It didn’t stop them from reaching the finish line that time. Losing Saudi Arabia is unnecessary now. “We have to move on,” Scaloni said. At the age of 35, Messi has no choice if he fulfills his dream and that of his son, Thiago.
(Photo: ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP via Getty Images)