Martin Mazur – AIPS Media
BUENOS AIRES, November 22, 2022 – Qatar 2022 started with an early wake-up call for Argentinians. Kick-off against Saud Arabia was at 7:00 am. Bars and bakeries opened at 5:30 in the morning so everyone could have hot pastries and watch La Scaloneta, the nickname earned by the team of Scaloni victory after victory.
Schools prepared giant screens so pupils could watch Argentina’s debut without missing classes. Unbeaten since 2019, with a run of 36 games, Saudi Arabia appeared to be the best possible starter for the World Cup dream. A day before, people had been queuing up for more than one hour to buy the albiceleste jersey.
Everything was prepared to be a celebration. In fact, after 45 minutes of football, winning 1-0 and with three disallowed goals, it kind of was. Lionel Messi was already the first Argentinian to score in four different World Cups. He was the first Argentinian to play in five. His goal from the spot erased the bad memory of the saved penalty against Iceland, in Argentina’s opening game in Russia 2018. In complete control, almost like doing an errand in the Middle East, nobody saw that punch coming.
It was a knock-out punch. An unstoppable one-two. Five horror minutes to make everyone understand that the World Cup was not a walk in the (Oxygen) Park. What happened today, Tuesday 22 November, is one of the beautiful mysteries that football offers us and one of the greatest World Cup tales to be remembered.
Argentina did not know how to react. The last time they were down on the scoreboard was two years ago, at La Bombonera. Another era, the losing era. Suddenly, everything went into dark mode. There are not enough strikers. There is no fitness response. And worryingly, there are low spirits.
The Saudi players are now giants. Their goalkeeper is Yashin. Their striker is Gerd Müller. There’s no case, their goalmouth is smaller than the ball. Messi won’t be able to change this. No-one will.
So, without bringing up a famous quote from Mario Vargas Llosa’s famous book Conversation in the Cathedral, it’s worth asking ourselves, at what precise moment has Argentina shot itself in the foot? Clearly not in the build-up, but during the game.
“We got a bit confused, we saw so many spaces, we tried to take advantage, for centimetres we had goals disallowed. And then, two mistakes and we were down,” admitted Messi. “But people should know that this group will not leave them behind. It’s a group that needs to prove what it’s made of,” continued the captain.
Five minutes froze Argentina’s high hopes and reset their World Cup expectations. Now, the team will have to pick up the pieces and start over. Three times in their history Argentina started losing the first game of a World Cup. In all three, they managed to qualify for the next round. Will this be enough encouragement?
Mexico, a Latin American classic of the Round of 16, will become an elimination game next Saturday. With an added drama: two Argentinians, Martino and Funes Mori, will be on the other side.
Argentina 1, Saudi Arabia 2, the 7:00 am game was, perhaps, the needed wake-up call to realise that candidates that win on paper rarely lift the trophy in the end. Just as it was too early to declare Argentina moral champions, it’s still too early to write them off when the World Cup is just starting.