LUSAIL, Qatar — This time was speculated to be different. For Lionel Messi, this time was not speculated to end like the entire others, with those slumping shoulders, that distant stare, that hole grimace.
Qatar was not speculated to be as bad as what happened to arguably the best player of all time in the colours of Barcelona on those nights in Rome and Liverpool and Lisbon, let alone within the albiceleste of Argentina in Rio de Janeiro. And, in a way, it wasn’t. It was worse.
Argentina arrived in Qatar with the only ambition of ensuring that Messi’s final World Cup can be remembered because the one which bathed his legacy within the sensible, golden glow only this tournament, this ultimate triumph, can confer.
As a substitute, it must now face the haunting possibility that it should ceaselessly be synonymous with one in every of its darkest humiliations, one in every of the best upsets within the World Cup’s history.
For Argentina, losing to Saudi Arabia was not only a defeat; it was a humiliation, an ignominy, a stigma scarred into Argentine skin in front of 88,000 people, streamed continue to exist television and beamed world wide. By the top, because the delirious Saudi substitutes swarmed onto the sector, Argentina’s players seemed visibly diminished, their faces drawn, their eyes hunted.
None more so, after all, than Messi. He has worn that look moderately greater than he would love lately. It has turn into more familiar than may be expected for a player of his status, his legend.
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The sunset of essentially the most glittering profession 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 St.-Germain against Real Madrid earlier this yr.
And after each of them, that very same dispirited silhouette — hands on hips, head bowed, eyes downcast as he walks slowly off the sector — that he cut when the whistle blew at Lusail, the stadium that can host the ultimate of Messi’s final World Cup next month, and Argentina’s nightmare became flesh.
If anything, the pain of this may sting greater than any of the others. Not only due to the opponent: an unheralded and unfancied Saudi team that had been solid as little greater than a sacrificial lamb, advised before the tournament to focus more on “having fun with themselves” than winning by a minimum of their kingdom’s crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, not a person who looks like the kind to consider that it’s really the participating that counts.
The true difference, though, was Argentina itself. For the primary time in years, the country had one way or the other 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 brief basis and proved surprisingly good at it, Argentina had fostered a system designed to offer an older Messi with the support he needed.
Within the years before the tournament, it had played 35 games and never lost any of them. More vital, it had ended its generation-long wait for a global honor, capturing its first Copa América title since 1993 in essentially the most satisfying way possible: by beating Brazil, in Brazil. It had followed that up by dismantling the European champion, Italy, in a game marketed because the Finalissima.
Argentina had the best player on the planet — possibly the best of all time — in a wealthy vein of form, a supremely gifted supporting solid and an enormous 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 a minimum of three World Cups, after all. The difference, this time, was that the team looked self-confident, assured, something near serene.
It took not more than five minutes to interrupt all of that apart. Argentina had dominated the primary half, taking the lead through a penalty won, a little bit fortuitously, by Leandro Paredes and converted, with precious little ceremony, by Messi. That was so far as its luck ran — an additional three goals were ruled out for offside, a minimum of one in every of them extremely narrowly — but because the teams headed inside on the break, there seemed scant cause for concern.
Perhaps complacency explains what happened next: Argentina dozing as Saleh al-Shehri clipped home an equalizer, after which watching on powerless as Salem al-Dawsari danced through three challenges and curled a shot, its parabola picture-perfect, beyond the clawing grasp of Emiliano Martínez.
Credit…Ricardo Mazalan/Associated PressCredit…Ricardo Mazalan/Associated Press
Saudi Arabia’s fans, bused in by the thousand from the border 90 miles away, roared; Argentina’s stood, shellshocked, the ghost of defeat to Cameroon in Milan in 1990 at their shoulder. The players, too, seemed unable to reply; this is just not a team that has, lately, had much experience in recovering from setbacks.
And so, as a substitute of keeping a cool head, slowly turning the screw on their tiring opponents, Argentina’s players fretted and frazzled and chased and hurried. There may be a high quality line between urgent and frantic, and Messi and his teammates fell firmly on the flawed side of it.
With half an hour to create a single likelihood for a number of the finest forwards on the planet, Argentina generated nothing. Even Messi, a being seemingly hewn from pure, uncut poise, seemed afflicted, rushing his passes, missing his beats, fading from the sport because the clock ticked moderately than bending it to his will. Perhaps, by now, he has suffered these indignities enough to sense when one is coming. Perhaps he’s in tune with the cruelty of fate.
All is just not yet lost, after all. Argentina still has two games to avert disaster, to spare its blushes. Beat Mexico and Poland within the remaining two group games and, on the surface, losing to Saudi Arabia may have done no lasting damage. That defeat to Cameroon in 1990, in spite of everything, didn’t prevent Diego Maradona from leading his team all of the strategy to the World Cup final. This is just not the top of Messi’s tournament. It might be nothing greater than a false start.
Within the moment, as Messi and his teammates gathered in a decent bunch in the course of the sector, as if huddling together for safety and for security and heat, it didn’t feel like that. As a substitute, it seemed as if something had come undone within the white heat of Lusail’s afternoon sun. This time was speculated to be different. Hastily, for Messi and for Argentina, all of it felt the exact same.
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