Lionel Messi’s international career has never felt closer to oblivion | Jonathan Liew

There is time for Messi and Argentina to save their World Cup campaign, however, despite a shock defeat by Saudi Arabia

There was more time. When you are Lionel Messi, there is always more time. Another split second to play the pass. Another couple of beats to wait for the space to open up. Another year to mount a challenge. Another World Cup to fight. And here, on a bright warm day in November, with the clocks striking 13 minutes of injury time, there were still a few more seconds for Argentina to make things right.

Messi advanced down the right channel, nudging the ball along with impatient taps of his left outstep. A little space had opened up in front of him in the Saudi Arabia midfield. Ángel Di María was making the overlapping run on the right wing. In between him and the goal stood three defenders. Briefly, thrillingly, you could see the cogs whirring as Messi contemplated taking them all on and saving the match on his own. Instead, the pass went sideways to Di María and the cross went nowhere. There is always more time.

Not here, perhaps, but later. There are two games remaining in this group, processes to be trusted, faith to be kept. Even after a disaster on this seismic and stunning scale, the methods that brought Argentina to Qatar as one of the tournament favourites on a run of 36 unbeaten games must remain intact, if only because they have little other choice. The stakes were always this high. The margins of failure were always this punishing.

It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Argentina’s fatal mistake here was in deluding themselves otherwise. The 21st century’s greatest World Cup shock did not immediately portend itself. As Saudi and Argentinian fans converged on the giant golden boat of the Lusail Stadium under cloudless midday skies, the atmosphere was almost festive: selfies on the metro, hugs on the concourses, Saudis wearing Messi shirts, Qataris wearing Messi shirts, Australian tourists wearing Messi shirts.

Nothing that unfolded in a vivid and entertaining first half seemed to shake that air of informality. It was 1‑0, but the ball had hit the Saudi net so many times that it didn’t feel like a 1-0. In truth what was happening was that Hervé Renard’s immaculate defensive line was perfectly disrupting Argentina’s buildup, forcing them to go for a little more, to play the pass a little earlier or later than they would have liked. This was how Argentina scored – or didn’t score – their three offside goals.

Nobody seemed overly perturbed at any of this. There was, after all, always more time.

What of Messi? Well, he got his goal, a delightful confidence trick of a penalty in the 10th minute. But for the most part he, too, was easing himself into the tournament, sniffing the air, trying to keep a lid on things. We already knew this about him, of course: the way he likes to spend the opening minutes just walking and watching, getting to know the shape and heft of the game, working out where the spaces might open up. Messi is probably the only guy in the world who actually reads all the terms and conditions.


But at the same time Argentina seemed to soften a little, convinced that all they needed to do was to manage the game through to its inevitable conclusion. More and more their attacks began to break down, or dissolve into harmless spells of possession. Meanwhile the precise physicality of the Saudi defensive rearguard was beginning to disrupt them. Every single Saudi outfield player made at least one tackle. Eight of them blocked a shot. They attacked bravely and directly, Firas al-Buraikan and Salem al-Dawsari striding up the flanks like lone soldiers sprinting across no man’s land. Slowly and by degrees, Saudi Arabia were beginning to sharpen the game to a point.

Even so, when the equaliser came it still felt like something of a miracle, and was greeted as such by a deafening wall of Saudi pride and Saudi songs, Saudi men and more Saudi men. Certainly Argentina seemed stunned by the violence and suddenness of the assault. Rarely, if ever, can they have played a World Cup game in a neutral stadium and felt so thoroughly outnumbered, out‑chanted, outmatched. And it was in those infamous few minutes that the game was lost. Eardrums still stinging, hearts still pumping, heads still rattling, Nawaf al-Abid tried a curling shot, Di María and Leandro Paredes lunged hopelessly at the rebound, and Dawsari fired the ball into the top corner to screams of anguish and disbelief.

What did Argentina have left? As the tackles continued to pile in, as the crosses rained down on the goal of Mohammed al-Owais, as the Saudis in the crowd shredded what was left of their nerves, perhaps this is what will concern Lionel Scaloni most. The blend of urgency and composure that characterises all the great teams was entirely absent here: too bloodless in the first half, too confused in the second. The withdrawal of Paredes unbalanced them in midfield and, short of giving the ball to Messi, they were bereft of ideas in the final third.

This is not a team that have gone stale overnight. But whatever serenity, stability or momentum they had built up over the past three years has been shattered. Every remaining minute of their World Cup will now be played with a knife between their teeth, which could ultimately forge them or break them. Messi’s own international career has never felt closer to oblivion. There is still time. But it is swiftly running out.


Jonathan Liew at Lusail Stadium

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lionel Messi’s World Cup swansong might just be his best shot at glory | Jonathan Liew
At 35 years old, the Argentina forward is humbler, wiser and ready to complete one of football’s greatest stories

Jonathan Liew

21, Nov, 2022 @7:34 AM

Article image
Messi and Di María shine as Argentina rout UAE in final World Cup warmup
Ángel Di María scored two fine goals and Lionel Messi also got on the scoresheet as Argentina impressed in Abu Dhabi

Guardian sport and agencies

16, Nov, 2022 @10:22 PM

Article image
Saudi Arabia stun Argentina as Salem al-Dawsari winner crowns comeback
Saudi Arabia came from behind to cause one of the biggest ever World Cup shocks, beating Argentina 2-1 after Lionel Messi’s penalty had put the South American side ahead

Andy Hunter at Lusail Stadium

22, Nov, 2022 @12:45 PM

Article image
Lionel Messi urges teammates to take last step to win World Cup
Lionel Messi, who drove Argentina on in their semi-final, said: ‘We were confident we would make it,’ but Croatia were angry about the award of a penalty for the first goal

Jacob Steinberg at the Lusail Stadium

13, Dec, 2022 @11:41 PM

Article image
World Cup hero? Even triumph for Messi will not save this compromised spectacle | Barney Ronay
Lionel Messi leading Argentina to glory would be a moment of sporting beauty but still a sportswashing win for Qatar

Barney Ronay

11, Nov, 2022 @9:00 PM

Article image
Messi emulates Maradona in fairytale ending to a story like no other | Sid Lowe
Argentina’s maestro followed his hero in leading his country to the World Cup and completed his collection of titles

Sid Lowe at Lusail Stadium

18, Dec, 2022 @9:28 PM

Article image
France plot new plan to stop Lionel Messi after Kanté’s 2018 masterclass
Without midfielder from the last World Cup, Didier Deschamps must find a fresh strategy to contain Argentina’s captain

Nick Ames in Doha

15, Dec, 2022 @12:57 PM

Article image
Lionel Messi wants to keep playing for Argentina after World Cup win
Lionel Messi said he wanted ‘to enjoy a couple more matches being world champion’ rather than retiring from international football immediately

Nick Ames at Lusail Stadium

18, Dec, 2022 @10:23 PM

Article image
Messi dominates mismatch with Lewandowski but Poland striker keeps his head | Sid Lowe
Argentina’s maestro Lionel Messi against Poland’s star striker Robert Lewandowski was no contest but both ended up embracing in celebration

Sid Lowe at Stadium 974

30, Nov, 2022 @10:42 PM

Article image
Argentina’s fall against Saudi Arabia may have set them on a shining path
If France are taking hope from their World Cup final opponents’ defeat in their first match, then they really ought to think again

Paul MacInnes

16, Dec, 2022 @11:46 AM