KJ'S WORLD CUP DIARY (Nov. 22): Negativity pushed aside as Saudi Arabia shocks Argentina
Tuesday November 22nd, 2022
There seems to be a lot of tension in the air these days.
Today began literally at the stroke of midnight inside Ahmed bin Ali Stadium as the final whistle closed a chapter on a fabulous World Cup game between the USA and Wales. For many in the media that is just the beginning of the work. Post-match reaction shows, press conferences, show tapings, a bus back to the main media centre and a remarkably difficult Uber ‘home’ for me meant it was time for sleep when the sun rose at 4:45 a.m.
Five hours later further issues continued with aggressive security guards and police when it came to another Uber not having the right sticker on his car to gain access for us to a key media entrance.
More shouting and blaming others. As I sat in the back of the car silently, shaking my head it occurred to me that this has been a World Cup of finger pointing so far. Where is the love? Gianni pointed it at the world on the day before the tournament and many haven’t stopped pointing back since.
FIFA’s asinine stance over the ‘OneLove’ armband stirred the pot further, football federations and then players were then targeted by the media for not standing taller and saying more. Then came stories about broken ticket scanners, people moaning about too much injury time, the weather is too hot, too many empty seats, fake fans. I don’t want to go on.
The verdict is as clear as it comes. If you were to poll everyone in the world who loves this game the percentage of people who want this World Cup to be in Qatar would feature a lot of zeros. Yet, here we are, and it is time to make the best of it. Media members have sacrificed time away from loved ones to live in barely suitable accommodations, working incredible hours of the day and fatigue is setting in. I can see it in the eyes of many and the columns of many more. Some don’t even like football, working for major newspapers and networks that spend hours every day reporting on real news of horror, terror, hardship, tragedy. They don’t know better than to chase negative stories.
Yet, although it is a duty to report what we see and cover major stories, ultimately it is important to do it through an unbiased lens. That’s the case when it comes to reporting on actual matches and it should be the same away from the pitch. Often in major sporting events – World Cup and Olympic Games in particular – it can go the other way. Those in the host country fall in love with the experience and the hosts are treated differently in every way.
Long before Gianni opened his mouth on Saturday the tone was set for how this one could be covered. Ultimately, though, what do football fans want to hear? Personally, I have found that so far many of you reading this want to hear about my experiences around the matches and so I continue to express what I see. Football is the world’s game, and no sport has more fans but throughout those, some love it more than others. World Cups bring casual fans and with it comes stories to target them. World Cup chatter around the office goes a lot further when you aren’t breaking down Canada’s decision to play a hybrid back five.
Thankfully, as the beautiful game tends to do, a World Cup classic occurred here at Lusail Stadium in the early afternoon on Tuesday that will get anyone associated with this sport talking about it. Thousands of supporters from both countries carried on the momentum from Wales vs USA last night to electrify this World Cup. I had the pleasure to watch it and monitored Lionel Messi through all the highs and lows all afternoon but as now you know this quickly turned away from Messi being the storyline.
The Messi Diaries
12:21 p.m. — Lionel Messi leads out Argentina to a roar usually best served for rock stars. Not simply a cacophony of cheers, more a mixture of jubilation and roar. Think Harry Styles minus the sounds of teenage girls. As a proud Dad of one, trust me I know.
12:37 p.m. — Messi and his teammates depart warmups and the Argentine crowd turn their nose into more encouragement than fandom as they leave the field.
12:45 p.m. — Messi is back. Only this time on the screen as the stadium declares him as the ‘Player to watch’ just in case anyone was undecided. Even the raucous Saudi Arabians clap.
12:50 p.m. — The loud but enthusiastic Australian stadium host declares ‘Welcome!!! We know why you are here.’ I half expected him to announce Messi but ended the sentence with something about a World Cup coming to Lusail. The World Cup final will be awarded here in 26 days’ time, for some a legacy-defining one for Messi who has six games to see if his team can be here on December 18th.
1 p.m. — The game kicks off and Messi becomes the fourth player to appear at five different World Cups, joining Antonio Carbajal, Lothar Matthaus and Rafa Marquez.
1:01 p.m. — No one preserves his energy more than Messi and he doesn’t waste any time showing it. None of this ‘run around hard for a few minutes to get the legs going’ for Lionel. If someone didn’t know the game and was asked to pick the least interested player on the field based on body language, he’d be a good bet. Messi saunters backwards at a pace that would see a gust of wind push him over. This, though, is Qatar. It’s hot and it’s early. Messi, with his back to goal, scans the field watching the rest of his teammates sprint for every ball. While Argentina brings passion, intensity and purpose, Messi brings calmness and….
1:02 p.m. — Messi is on the edge of the penalty area. Here he stands and waits, making every step count, small walking steps to be in the right position, just in case. Sure enough, Messi finds space and his first touch comes after he opens his body, lifts back his left foot and shoots on target, forcing a save out of Mohammed Alowais.
1:06 p.m. — A ball is played wide to the left for Alejandro Gomez to attack. Players anticipating a cross flood the penalty area. Messi stays on the edge of it, waiting for a moment. Argentina wins a corner, and a scuffle takes place in the box as Leandro Paredes goes down.
1:08 p.m. — Argentina wins another set-piece. Messi stands over it when the referee blows his whistle to do a VAR check. Messi sees the ref leave and hits the ball into the penalty box anyway, using a chance to practice his skills. As the stadium watches the referee at the monitor, Messi is already in preparation mode. On his own ready for the inevitable. Penalty is awarded.
1:09 p.m. — As ever the referee is surrounded by protesters, Messi is once again the finder of space. Patiently he waits.
1:10 p.m. – Messi’s time has come. Here he places the ball on the spot and strokes it into the net. 1-0 Argentina.
1:21 p.m. – Messi has started to move a little quicker. His mind, though, will always win a race over his body. He is back at the edge of the box and immediately nutmegs a defender to keep possession. Another roar goes out from the crowd, the kind you hear when your favourite musical artists drop the opening chords to a big hit.
1:22 p.m. – Messi is in on goal and scores. The flag is raised for offside, and the captain opens his mouth, grimaces and looks at the assistant referee knowing he was right, but only just. Few get the better of him after all. Argentina would exploit the Saudi Arabia high line but see two more goals waved off for offside in the opening half.
2:11 p.m. – Messi is walking again. This time he is in the centre circle and suddenly his mind isn’t quick as it needs to be as he is dispossessed and Saudi Arabia are away in transition. Saleh Al Shehri dribbles around Cristian Romero, places a fantastic finish in the corner with his left foot and the underdogs have scored. It was their first shot on target but hardly a goal out of nothing. In a first half full of whistles the rhythm went out of their game, which turned into a game of moments. 1-1.
2:16 p.m. – Number 10 scores, but it’s not Messi. Lusail Stadium erupts into a sea of green as Salem Al Dawsari smashes it in to make it 2-1. Suddenly, the Copa America holders, the team with a 36-game unbeaten run are in trouble. Argentine fans hold their heads in shock. Yet, Messi’s body language doesn’t change as he walks up to restart the game. His time, his moment will surely come.
2:24 p.m. – “Imagine if Argentina gets knocked out of the World Cup,” says Juan, from Spain sitting next to me. Providing they can score; this is exactly the test you need in a World Cup group some feared would be too comfortable for them I told him.
2:43 p.m. – Ten minutes remain, and Messi stands over a free kick. It has been 1238 days since they lost a match. Messi blasts his free kick into the crowd. He has so far been as good as his team. Not good enough.
2:46 p.m. – Saudi Arabia have been immense, playing on the front foot when needed and defending brilliantly. Their amazing fans cheered every clearance, tackle and pass like a goal. Simply they were too physically imposing on a weak Argentina team that looked very little like the side that has dominated games for over three years.
Full time – Argentina 1 Saudi Arabia 2. A genuinely staggering result, not just because of the outcome but because of how it was earned. Argentina were not unfortunate, they were second best. This was a throwback to far too many World Cup games with Messi in their team when as a side they just were nowhere near good enough, perhaps, waiting for their talisman to lift them from despair once again. With little time to prepare they were a shadow of their recent selves. Shocks were always possible inside a calendar like this, but nothing like this. There are games that surprise, games that can shock, but in World Cup terms this was an earthquake of a result.
You can never win a World Cup in the first game, but you can go a long way to losing it. Spain in 2010 became the only team to win it after losing an opening match. Many champions have indeed played poorly early and then peaked. Argentina, though, have no more room for error. Only 11% of teams to lose their first World Cup game in this format since 1998 (8 of 73) have progressed to the knock-out stages. Suddenly, Argentina and Messi are on the ropes far earlier than anyone imagined. The football world is back talking about what it should be, and, on this day, the only fingers being pointed are at Messi and Argentina.