“It’s Al-Dawsari for Saudi Arabia and it’s 2–1 Saudi Arabia. Heaven, the streak is over, Messi in ashes, Argentina in despair.”
Argentina’s World Cup campaign began with a whimper — having taken an early lead via a penalty from Lionel Messi, they failed to double their lead due to a combination of errant finishing and a well-executed offsides trap from Saudi Arabia. They paid the price, with Saleh Al-Shehri equalizing shortly after the break and Salem Al-Dawsari scoring the go-ahead goal five minutes later to secure a 2-1 victory.
This was Argentina’s first defeat since losing to Brazil in the 2019 Copa América semifinals — few people could have imagined that less than a month later, they’d be hoisting the World Cup. A drab opening hour against Mexico did little to calm nerves, with a crumbling Argentina side flirting with an early group stage elimination, but once again, Messi saved the day. Receiving a pass on the edge of the box, Messi took a touch to control it before launching a shot past Guillermo Ochoa and into the right corner, with substitute Enzo Fernández sealing the 2-0 victory with a late goal.
They made easy work of Poland in the third and final group stage match with Alexis Mac Allister and Julián Álvarez grabbing second-half goals to secure a 2-0 win and clinch first place, setting up a Round of 16 match-up with Australia. Once again, La Pulga was at the heart of the action, and he’d make his presence known in the 35th minute.
After Harry Souttar headed away his free-kick, Papu Gómez knocked the rebound back to Messi, who cut inside before dishing it off to Mac Allister. The Brighton midfielder found Nicolás Otamendi who dinked it off to Messi, who took a touch before curling it past Matthew Ryan with his divine left foot. It was a team goal in every sense, and, at the same time, a display of Messi’s inherent capability to remain focused and cause danger from any area of the pitch.
The second goal would see Álvarez and Rodrigo De Paul collapse on Ryan and force a giveaway, with Álvarez doubling the lead before the hour-mark. An own goal from Enzo would make for a nervy final 20 minutes, but the Albiceleste nevertheless held onto a 2-1 victory and knocked out the Socceroos, setting up a date with the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.
Argentina would take the lead after 34 minutes as Messi weaved his way past various players before threading the needle and playing a no-look through ball to Nahuel Molina, who converted the opener. It seemed that Lionel Scaloni’s side were cruising towards a place in the semifinal when Messi doubled the lead from the penalty spot, but a brace from Wout Weghorst sent it to extra time. Just as they did in the 2014 semifinals, Argentina would narrowly hold on and defeat the Dutch on penalties.
They would face Croatia, who defeated them 3-0 in the 2018 tournament en route to their runners-up finish, and this time, it was the Albiceleste who took home the spoils. Messi broke the deadlock after a half-hour, smashing his penalty into the top-right corner, before providing two assists for an Álvarez brace in a 3-0 victory. For the first and only time in the knockout round, Argentina did not just start brightly and lose its way towards the end — they held their composure and picked up a clean sheet against the Vatreni.
They would face another familiar foe from 2018 — the defending champions and the team that eliminated them from the tournament. For the fourth straight match, Messi would break the deadlock, sending Hugo Lloris the wrong way and firing a penalty into the bottom right corner, before contributing to a sensational counter-attacking goal that would see Ángel Di María justify his starting appearance and double the lead for Argentina. But once again, they would lose their steam and have a seemingly surefire advantage slip away from their hands.
A brace from Kylian Mbappé sent the fixture to extra time, and when Messi restored Argentina’s advantage, Mbappé converted his second penalty to stretch the match into penalties. Like they had done throughout the tournament, Argentina got punched in the face and dusted themselves off, putting themselves back onto their feet. It was Gonzalo Montiel, who gave away the last-minute penalty after coming off the bench, who converted the decisive spot-kick to seal Argentina’s third World Cup.
These players were not just playing for their country and their families — they were playing for Messi and they delivered. The little magician, the cherry on the cake, the boy who had a dream, the king on the chess board, he led his nation to the promised land and capped off a stellar tournament with an individual masterclass. There can be no more debate — Lionel Andres Messi is the greatest footballer of all time.
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Joe Allison / Getty Images