Lionel Messi’s eldest son Thiago is obsessed with winning the Argentina World Cup. So he spent the last few months questioning his father about the race. When do you play Argentina? Who are you against? What if you top the team or, heaven forbid, finish runners-up.
“He is worried about it,” Messi told Argentinian newspaper Ole.
“The fact is he puts a lot of pressure on me.” Winning the Copa America against Brazil 18 months ago at the Maracana in Brazil should have taken the pressure off Messi. “This will reduce the tension a lot,” he said as he prepared for Argentina’s World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia in Lusail. He also went on an unbeaten streak of 36 games, the longest in Argentina’s history.
For many people, Lionel Scaloni’s side touched down as favorites in Qatar. Only the former defender doesn’t see it that way. “We have no obligation to win the World Cup,” Scaloni said. “If we believe that, we are wrong. We have to respect other groups. There are no fewer than eight or 10 national teams capable of winning the World Cup, and most of them are European. Big favorites don’t usually win.
When we returned home, the media wondered if this was the case Cabulero Speaking – a superstitious person who does not want to tempt fate. Scaloni, after all, has been here before. In the year He was part of Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina team that went on a long unbeaten run at the 2002 World Cup. Painfully, and all surprisingly, they were eliminated as a group.
Now Scaloni is contemplating a terrifying repeat. “It’s a very sad day,” Saudi Arabia said after coming from behind to end the biggest shock in World Cup history. Messi is out, he can’t be checked. He stared into the distance and then looked at the lamb. This is not how he wanted his last World Cup to start, “my last chance to achieve my dream, the dream we all follow”. A dream is now broken. “No excuses,” Messi lamented.
Argentina will not be able to see the line forward and Messi and Lautaro Martinez will not be able to look at the offside goals. They can only see themselves. “Now we have to prove that we are a real team,” Messi said. In the year A team that compares favorably with the team that reached the finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. “Think positive” was La Nacion’s slogan in the build-up to the game. Why not Argentina? But the mood around the team took a hit during the training camp in the United Arab Emirates ahead of the World Cup. Nico Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa have been forced out of the squad through injury and Scaloni admitted he had a few “little problems”. The performance of a trio of influential starters like Cristiano Romero, Leandro Paredes and Angel DiMaria was a concern. Doubt began to creep in.
However, in the first half against Saudi Arabia, they did not notice that much. Messi’s early free-kick was a shock, his speed on the ball showing composure and control. The prospect of another goal soon in the game and the chance to once again face Gabriel Batista as Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup does not seem too far-fetched. “Lionel has a chance to pass me,” Batigol said on the morning of the match. “And I hope he does.”
But the forward’s flag (or semi-automatic technology) tormented Messi and his strike partner Lautaro. One goal was spoiled by each other. Psychologically, it must be a source of frustration. But Messi couldn’t get into it cheaply. “A lot of things have been said about VAR; that’s how it happened today and that’s it, there’s no excuse.
In the end, Messi gave the ball to Saleh Al Shehri for the equaliser, and Argentina were in for a brief but decisive shock. “It’s hard to assimilate,” Scaloni tried to explain, “because he conceded two goals in four minutes and only two of them were on target.” Argentina fans have realized that the team needs them. They were incredibly bought into the game. It was a different feeling than when they flocked to Rio in 2014 and sang songs at Brazil’s expense. The Finalissima was different from the South American champions beating European champions Italy when they took over Wembley in May, drumming and jumping from kick-off to full-time.
It was as if the fans were used to it when Messi opened the scoring. When Alshehri equalized, the Saudi fans could not believe it and became a legend. Lucille was beginning to feel like Riad. That’s what home advantage in the Arab world feels like, and the Saudis have made it count by capitalizing on Argentina’s uncertainty. A clearance by Leandro Paredes on the edge of the box was celebrated as a goal. Nicolas Otamendi’s pass aimed to ease the pressure on his own side boosted the result and when Salem Al Dawsari beat Amy Martinez in Argentina’s goal – the penalty hero who stopped everything at the 2021 Copa America – Emiliano Martinez was the zenith of Saudi momentum. The game changed within five minutes, and perhaps questions will be raised about the 44-year-old Scaloni’s game management, although the three substitutions of Romero, Paredes and Di Maria following the Saudi’s second goal created a sense of shock.
Still, the result should not cloud our imagination. Argentina created enough chances to earn a point or more against Saudi Arabia and although much was made of Giovanni Lo Celso’s absence – Villarreal’s midfielder was Argentina’s top assist and combined well with Messi – it was not Argentina’s lack of threat. Problem won the xG battle 2.23 to 0.14. Let’s not forget Nico Tagliafico’s missed chance to score an empty net and Abdullah Al-Amri’s goal-line finish made him a hero for his Saudi team-mates. It was a game of inches for Messi and Lautaro.
Scaloni and his players now have to tune 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 in the past. It was they who held the Italy 90 opener at the San Siro when Cameroon and Francois Omme-Biek upset Diego Maradona and his teammates. That didn’t stop them from reaching the final. There is no need to lose to Saudi Arabia. “We have to move on,” Scaloni said. At the age of 35, Messi has no choice but to make his dream and his son Thiago come true.
(Photo: Antonin Thullier/AFP via Getty Images)