The Argentinian colleagues quickly have the explanation ready. “He’s injured,” says a reporter in the media shuttle, “something’s wrong with his ankle.” That’s not verified, Messi himself hasn’t commented on it, but something must be the reason, it’s definitely not his fault . Even at the age of 35, the media in his homeland let nothing come to Lionel Messi. Not even a 2-1 defeat to outsiders Saudi Arabia can change that.
Although offensive players his age are usually passed on to football geriatrics, everyone here agrees that “La Pulga” (Eng. the flea) is still the key player in the Argentine game. If he lacks penetrating power due to an injury, the self-confidence of the whole team suffers. And exactly this chain reaction can be observed in the Lusail Stadium from the second half.
His fifth World Cup has started so well for the exceptional player. Even as he steps out of the catacombs to warm up, hysterical screams ring out from the stands. The Saudis, who are slightly superior in numbers, are not holding back either. Like his mastermind Diego Maradona, Messi is a saint all over the world. A player who has always embodied consummate dedication, love of the game and unlimited inspiration. One of the big sporting questions associated with the tournament in Qatar is therefore whether he will still be able to win the cup in his last appearance on the world stage. And there is probably no fan worldwide who would not give him this honor from the bottom of his heart.
No South American player has played more World Cups than him. In 20 tournament games, he scored six goals. Yes, the Argentinian colleagues also admit that with some contrition, like Cristiano Ronaldo, he never scored in a knockout game, only in the group phase.
After the kick-off, it takes less than ten minutes for him to improve his goal record. After Leandro Paredes was knocked down in the penalty area, he scores from the penalty spot. A goal that also unleashed strength in his team-mates, as Argentina now put the Saudis in a headlock. Messi embellished the display with a number of deep passes which resulted in Argentina scoring three more goals – one of which he scored himself – before half-time, all of which were ruled out for offside.
After the end of the game, the gifted man will say that after the first 45 minutes he assumed that his team would score more goals. Especially since Saudi Arabia has to lament the absence of its captain Salman al Farasch before the break whistle.
But somehow keeper Mohammed Al-Owais didn’t realize that the game was intended to open the Messi Festival. The goalkeeper surpasses himself in the second half and becomes the figurehead of the Saudi resistance. Central defender Cristian Romero has to be injured, his neighbor Nicolas Otamendi spends a lot of time provoking his opponents and punishing them with ignorance. His opponent Ali Al Bulayhi reached out his hand several times after a collision, but Otamendi obviously didn’t want to get along.
The Argentines lose their esprit because of their scratchiness. Saleh Al-Sheri sunk Saudi Arabia’s first real chance, shortly afterwards Salem Al Dawsari scored a dream goal to make it 2-0, which Messi followed with his head hanging from the kick-off circle and obviously put him in agony. As if he knew that from now until the eighth minute of extra time, which is then extended by another five minutes after attacker Yasir Al Sharani suffered a serious head injury, his team will be vainly trying to get at the opposing goal.
Nothing wants to succeed for him anymore. The flashes of inspiration that he so often has with free kicks fizzle out in the opposing wall, his breathtaking speed dribbles, not quite as fast as before, get stuck in the multi-legged defence. He repeatedly quarrels with his actions, seems depressed, as if he were uncertain that the World Cup curse, which only led him to the final once in five appearances, but otherwise ended in the quarter-finals at the latest, is taking hold this time too. The party cracker is called Al-Owais, holding at least two untenables that day and exuding the shine usually reserved for the diminutive, yet larger-than-life Argentine.
Before kick-off, he had said that a win in the opening game would be “fundamental” for the rest of the tournament. Everything is at stake for Argentina in the next group match against Mexico. For the team to progress at the World Cup. For Lionel Messi, however, no less than the monumental question of whether he will ultimately go down in football history as the greatest incomplete player.