Argentina's Soul Bears Yet Another Scar from Saudi Arabia

Qatar's LUSAIL — It was planned that this moment would be unique.

Qatar's LUSAIL — It was planned that this moment would be unique. This time was not intended to come to an end with those sagging shoulders, that distant gaze, and that empty grimace, like all the others, had. Even Rio de Janeiro was not expected to be as horrible as Qatar. In a sense, it wasn't. Even terrible.

Argentina traveled to Qatar with the sole purpose of making sure that Lionel Messi's final World Cup would be regarded as the one that bestowed the beautiful, golden light on his legacy that only this competition, this ultimate victory, can bestow. Instead, it must now confront the horrifying potential that it will always be associated with one of its greatest upsets and darkest humiliations in the history of this competition.

Losing against Saudi Arabia was more than simply a setback; it was also an embarrassment, an ignominy, and a disgrace that was broadcast live on television and broadcast around the world in front of 88,000 spectators. By the time the game was over, Argentina's players appeared clearly depleted, their faces are drawn, and their eyes scouring as exuberant Saudi replacements surged onto the field.

Of course, no one more so than Messi. He has sported that face more often than he would have liked in recent years; it has grown more accustomed than one might anticipate for a player who is regarded as the best of all time.

The most illustrious career's sunset has been partially revealed in shadow: those agonizing losses to Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich in his final years with Barcelona; the dread inevitability of disappointment snatched from the jaws of glory with Paris St.-Germain against Real Madrid earlier this year.

How does the competition operate? Eight groups of four teams each contain eight of the 32 teams. Every team in the first round plays every other team in its group once. In each group, the top two finishers move on to the round of 16. The World Cup is then a single-elimination tournament.

When are the games going to happen? London, New York, and Los Angeles are all three hours and eight hours behind Qatar, respectively. This implies that some games will start early in the morning on the East Coast of the United States, and some 10 p.m. games in Qatar will start in the middle of the afternoon.

And after each of them, he cut the same dejected silhouette that was visible when the whistle blew at Lusail, the stadium that will host Messi's final World Cup final next month, and Argentina's nightmare materialized: hands on hips, head dropped, and eyes downcast as he goes slowly off the field.

The agony from this will hurt more than any other if anything. Not just because of the opponent: an underdog and unfancied Saudi team that had been painted as little more than a sacrificial lamb and advised prior to the competition to focus more on "enjoying themselves" than winning by Mohamed Bin Salman, who does not appear to be the type to believe that it is truly the participation that counts.

Argentina itself, though, was what made a significant distinction. The nation has created a national squad that wasn't enmeshed in a convoluted web of neuroses and complexes for the first time in years. Argentina had developed a structure to provide an older Messi the support he need under the tutelage of Lionel Scaloni, the low-key coach who had first assumed the position on a temporary basis and surprised many with how well he handled it.

It had played 35 games throughout the years leading up to the competition and had never lost one. The most satisfying way to win the Copa América since 1993 was by defeating Brazil in Brazil, but more significantly, it had put a stop to its generation-long quest for a global honor. It had then defeated Italy, the reigning European champion, in a match dubbed the Finalissima.

With a massive army of supporters at its back and the streets of Doha thronged with albiceleste jerseys, banners, and flags, Argentina possessed the best player on the planet—possibly the best of all time—in a deep vein of form. Of course, all of that has been true for at least three World Cups. The crew seemed more assured, self-assured, and even serene this time, which was the difference.

The entire process of disassembling took no longer than five minutes. Leandro Paredes, somewhat fortuitously, won a penalty, which Messi converted with little fanfare to give Argentina the lead. Argentina had controlled the first half. A further three goals were disallowed for offside, at least one of them very narrowly, but even so, as the sides came inside for halftime, there didn't seem to be any cause for alarm.

Maybe complacency is what led to what happened next: Salem Aldawsari danced through three challenges and curled a shot, its parabola picture-perfect, beyond Emiliano Martínez's clawing reach as Argentina slumbered as Saleh Alshehri tucked home an equalizer.

Argentina's supporters stood, shell-shocked, with the ghost of their defeat to Cameroon at their shoulder, while Saudi fans, bussed in by the thousands from the border 90 miles away, cheered. This team hasn't had much recent experience rebounding from setbacks, thus the players also appeared unable to react.

Argentina's players were anxious, flustered, harried, and hurried instead of maintaining composure and gradually applying pressure to their worn-out opponents. Messi and his teammates erred severely by crossing the thin line between urgent and panicked.

Argentina failed to manufacture even a single chance for some of the best attackers on the planet with just 30 minutes remaining. Even Messi, who appears to be made of pure, uncut poise, appeared to be suffering from the disease. He rushed his passes, missed his cues, and lost interest in the game as the time ran out rather than controlling it. It's possible that he has had enough of these humiliations at this point to be tuned in to the cruelties of fate.

Of course, not all is yet lost. Argentina still has two games left to save itself from embarrassment and avoid disaster; if they win against Mexico and Poland in their final two group games, losing to Saudi Arabia will appear to have had no lasting effects.

Despite losing to Cameroon in 1990, Diego Maradona still managed to guide his squad all the way to the World Cup final. The tournament of Messi is not over yet. It might just be a failed attempt.

It didn't feel that way at the time, though, as Messi and his teammates huddled close to one another in the middle of the field, appearing to be doing so for warmth, protection, and safety. Instead, it appeared as though something had unraveled under the baking afternoon sun of Lusail. It was planned that this moment would be unique. All of a sudden, everything felt the same for Messi and Argentina.

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