Lionel Messi
Argentina’s Lionel Messi reacts after missing a chance during the World Cup group C football match against Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar on November 22, 2022. Argentina suffered one of the shock defeats in World Cup history as Saudi Arabia won 2-1. Image Credit: AP

The sight of Lionel Messi’s face buried in his hands has become familiar. We have seen it in Russia, Brazil, South Africa and Germany in the last 20 years. It happened at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar too, after the stunning 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia. And each time we are surprised. Why? An Argentina loss at the World Cup, especially an early loss, is inconceivable since they tend to be among the favourites. Not just that. Messi’s fans are legion, and even his detractors are in awe of his sublime skills.

In the last four World Cups, Messi has shown that a genius doesn’t always win trophies. Dutch Total Football proponent Johan Cruyff’s mantelpiece is bare, barring the trophies with Barcelona and Ajax, and three Ballon d’Or awards. A similar fate befell Ferenc Puskas, Alfred di Stefano and several others.

Look at Diego Maradona, the only footballer to draw comparisons with Pele. He could only win in 1990, unlike Pele’s three winners’ medals in four World Cups. Messi is the anointed successor to Maradona, so he has to win a World Cup for Argentina. No pressure, really! The rest of the world bought into that narrative. Who wouldn’t want him to win? Despite being a Brazil supporter, I would like to see a World Cup medal around Messi’s neck (Disclosure: I’m a Barcelona fan).

But there was a problem. Argentina never had a team to back Messi, and the only time they reached the final in recent years was in 2018. But they fluffed chances in regulation time, and Mario Gotze’s brilliant extra-time goal gave Germany their fourth World Cup.

Things were different this time. Argentina came to Qatar on the back of 36 wins at a stretch. An unbeaten run wrought by the ruthless attack led by Lauturo Martinez and a midfield marshalled by Parades. Finally, Argentina had a team that was not heavily dependent on Messi, which allowed the 35-year-old the freedom to play at a slower pace.

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That made Argentina the second favourites behind the formidable Brazil. Third in the FIFA rankings, they were expected to decimate Saudi Arabia, ranked 51. Much like Ecuador and England in the earlier games in Qatar. Five minutes of brilliance followed by 47 minutes of stout-hearted defending helped the Saudis script arguably the biggest shock in World Cup history.

Disbelief was writ large on Messi’s face. Not again, he must have thought. The truth is Argentina didn’t deserve to win, and the Saudis earned every accolade with the spirited performance. So, where do Argentina go from here?

An early loss, that’s familiar territory for the Latin Americans. Remember Italia ’90? A group-stage shock defeat to Cameroon didn’t stop Argentina from advancing to the final on the strength of the penalty shootout heroics of goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea. That was Maradona’s team, which couldn’t stop the Germans from winning the cup.

Shock therapy will help Argentina

The Saudi defeat is a setback for coach Lionel Scaloni’s team. That will shake the Argentines out of the complacency of remaining unbeaten in 36 games. Moreover, Mexico and Poland played out a draw, which opened up the race for the top slots from Group C. Even if Saudi Arabia top the group, Argentina can qualify if they beat Mexico and Poland.

That’s easier said than done. For that, Argentina will have to lift their game by several notches. Or else, they risk being held to a draw or worse, another defeat. And Mexico are never an easy side, and the Poles can be troublesome when Robert Lewandoski’s on a song.

I think Argentina can pull it off. Two wins, and they should be on their way. After that, it will be tough to stop them. They have so much quality in this team that even without Messi, they are formidable. Messi’s presence helps. He’s their talisman. He has the superpowers to change games. It just didn’t happen on Tuesday (November 22). Even magicians can have an off day.