Argentina’s match against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday was to serve as the perfect springboard for Lionel Messi’s last dance at the World Cup.
The South American squad were expected to sweep their opponent, ranked 48 places below them in the world rankings, and fans had flocked to see Messi give a masterclass in what he says will be his last tournament.
But the Argentine captain was overshadowed by arguably the biggest upset in World Cup history and, as Saudi Arabia celebrated their win, Messi trudged into the tunnel with a face like thunder.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, who has yet to lift the World Cup trophy, did not hide from embarrassment, however.
While several of his teammates stormed reporters on the way to the team bus, Messi was one of two players who spoke to the media, the other being goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez.
“There are no excuses. We will be more united than ever. This group is strong and we have shown it.
“It is a situation that we have not experienced for a long time. Now we have to show that this is a real group.”
In the grand scheme of the tournament, a loss in the opening match isn’t necessarily the end of the world – after all, Spain won the 2010 World Cup after losing the opening match of the tournament to Switzerland.
Argentina will still likely qualify for the round of 16 if they win both of their next games against Poland and Mexico, but the defeat was particularly tough at home.
Words like “nightmare” and “inexplicable” were used by the Argentine media in reaction to the shock result which leaves his team with no margin for error.
“The truth? Dead,” Messi said when asked about team morale. “It’s a big blow because we didn’t expect to start like this.
“We expected to get the three points that would have given us peace of mind.
“My message to the fans is to have faith. We won’t leave them stranded.”
Those fans gathered in Doha in force and apparently outnumbered the Saudis inside Lusail Stadium on Tuesday.
Thousands in blue and white shirts chanted Messi’s name as they made their way to the match and continued to cheer on their hero as he graced Qatar 2022 with a penalty in the first 10 minutes.
But, at 35, Messi is not at his peak strength and the Saudis have managed to stifle his space at every opportunity.
Argentinian players still looked for Messi almost every time they got the ball. If not asking for the ball himself, Messi often orchestrated the game by pointing to where he wanted the ball to go.
But despite the flashes of brilliance, he couldn’t find the space to change his game. At the final whistle, the Argentine fans were slumped in their seats and it was the Saudi fans who ironically chanted Messi’s name.
As he left the venue, CNN heard fans joking with FIFA volunteers and officials, asking them if they had seen Argentina captain Lionel Messi “after he lost the whole game.”
Watch the hilarious moment when a Saudi soccer fan rips a door off its frame during the surprise
– Source: CNN
Doha was abuzz with Saudi supporters well into the evening and flags were still being flown well into early Wednesday morning.
The cheering fans who left the stadium took the subway back into central Doha where the festivities continued, many chanting until their voices started breaking.
Others were busy reliving the experience on their phones, watching goal highlights and watching footage of the celebrations from home.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud later ordered a national public holiday for Wednesday as the world grappled with such an unexpected outcome.
Amidst all the excitement though, Saudi coach Hervé Renard has asked his side to focus on building a successful campaign.
Saudi Arabia takes on Poland in their next match before facing Mexico.
“We made Saudi football history, it will remain forever, that’s the most important thing,” he told reporters after the match.
“But we have to think about looking ahead because we still have two games, which are very difficult for us.”
As for Messi, he will have another day in the sun at Qatar 2022.
What now feels like the end of the world will be a distant memory if he can inspire his side to victory against Mexico on Saturday.
There are thousands of fans in Doha praying that their hero can once again be the answer and confirm his status as the best player of all time.