World Cup 2022: Messi-mania grinds to a halt against Saudi Arabia

Lionel Messi
(Image credit: Getty)

Everywhere you looked outside the Lusail Stadium, you saw the same thing. To FFT's left, there was someone wearing a blue and white Argentina shirt, with 'Messi 10' on the back. To our right, there was someone wearing a blue and white Argentina shirt, with 'Messi 10' on the back. Straight in front of us, there was inevitably someone wearing a blue and white Argentina shirt, with 'Messi 10' on the back.

On this Tuesday lunchtime, there was little doubt who most of the crowd had come to see. Messi-mania had well and truly arrived in Qatar. 

Argentine fans dominated the scene outside the 88,966-capacity stadium that will hold the World Cup final next month - at least 20,000 seemed to have travelled from South America, where we can only presume that shirt sales are doing a roaring trade. Most had stuck Leo Messi's name on their back for good measure - FFT (loosely) counted around 782 bearing his name, and three people who liked to be rebellious - one went for Angel Di Maria, one for Leandro Paredes and one went full niche, opting for a goalkeeper jersey with Emiliano Martinez's name. Beat that - maybe it was his brother or something. 

Lionel Messi fans in Qatar

(Image credit: Future)

It wasn't only Argentines supporting the Albiceleste either: plenty of the local migrant population had decided to join in the fun. How best to illustrate that? They bought themselves 'Messi 10' Argentina shirts, of course.

Even the few spectators outside the ground with no obvious Messi merchandise were looking forward to seeing him. "I saw him in a friendly in Abu Dhabi last week, too," said a Canadian from Winnipeg, mainly here to cheer on his own national team in their first World Cup since 1986. "The stadium wasn't full for that game - it was mostly Argentine fans, and even the people from the UAE were Messi fans. Every time he got the ball, they cheered."

Lusail is a plush new city on the outskirts of Doha, with wide boulevards - sort of like a Qatari Milton Keynes, except with less roundabouts and more random sculptures of flying whales. No, we don't know why either.

Inside the arena, Argentina shirts dominated once more, their fans filling one end of the ground. At the other end, a sizeable amount of travelling Saudis - perhaps more than 10,000 - were packed, having made the short journey across the border.
All it took was the mere mention of Messi's name over the PA system pre-match for the stadium to erupt into a cacophony of noise - cheers for the most part, jeers from the Saudis, aware of the threat he was likely to pose today. Around 80 per cent of the photographers lined up for the anthems on the Argentina side of the pitch, almost as if they were intending to take a photo of one person in particular - they seemed less fussed about pictures of the Saudi team.

Like England's match against Iran yesterday, the stadium wasn't quite full, despite the crowd being officially announced as 88,012, and despite Messi's presence - a presence that nearly turned into a goal within 90 seconds of kick-off, when his shot was saved by Saudi Arabia keeper Mohammed Al Owais.

Within 10 minutes, he did have his goal - coolly sending the goalkeeper the wrong way from the penalty spot after Leandro Paredes had been fouled, his seventh career World Cup strike.

See more

Argentina fans were bouncing, the match looking firmly under their control, and it looked game over when Al Owais made the error of backing off and allowing Messi to race on to a loose ball, as the PSG man slotted home to make it 2-0. Or so he thought: seconds later, it was disallowed for offside by the slimmest of margins. Saudi fans were up on their feet in relief.

Still though, all the chances were coming Argentina's way, as they broke the Saudi press and exploited their high defensive line to send players through on goal far too often for the Asian side's liking. Twice more, though, they had goals disallowed for offside - for Lautaro Martinez on both occasions.

After Iran's heavy loss to England, some feared that Argentina might rack up six or seven in this game - before the interval, they looked like they might rack up that many in disallowed goals alone.

Then, within three minutes of the start of the second half, everything changed, both on and off the field, when Saleh Al Shehri slid home an equaliser that had previously shown absolutely no sign of coming. Suddenly, the Argentine end of the stadium was silent, and the Saudis were leaping out of their seats, waving flags in joy. Momentum had shifted in an instant.

When the Saudis poured forward again, their fans roared in anticipation and Argentina's defence panicked remarkably easy - failing to clear, until the ball found its way to Salem Al Dawsari, who promptly provided what will surely be one of the most incredible moments of this tournament, finding the top corner from the edge of the box, before going full Lomana LuaLua with his acrobatic celebration.

From absolutely nowhere, an Argentina side who hadn't lost in 36 games were behind - Saudi Arabia supporters couldn't quite believe what they were seeing. On the halfway line, Messi stood hands on hips, looking like he couldn't believe it either. A forlorn fan trudged past us in the stand, wearing a Barcelona shirt with Messi's name on it. Today wasn't supposed to be like this.

Messi has never been a shouter and a screamer when his teams face adversity - Cristiano Ronaldo, he is not. All he could muster here was a brief clap of encouragement to his team-mates, but the body language told only of despair, from a 35-year-old who knows the next month is his last chance to fulfil his biggest dream, and win the World Cup.

Still he provided moments of quality - a header saved, and a clever pass that almost led to a golden chance, but a free kick he might have fancied to put in sailed over the bar, and gradually the game was slipping away from him. By that point, all he could do was stand motionless, look to the heaven then offer a clap of encouragement to himself, delivered so half-heartedly that it was clear he was starting to doubt whether this game was rescuable.

When he dropped deep in a frustrated attempt to start an attack himself, he was quickly tackled, to roars of delight from the increasingly excited Saudis. Soon, their supporters were even doing the thunderclap - bringing back unwelcome memories for Messi of Argentina's draw against Iceland in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup, when he missed a penalty.

This would turn out to be even worse for the Albiceleste - an equaliser never came, sparking scenes of rapturous celebration at one end of the stadium at the full-time whistle, as Saudi substitutes raced on to the pitch like they'd just won the tournament itself.

This isn't the end for Messi - Argentina reached the final after a shock loss to Cameroon in their opening game of Italia 90, and Spain won the 2010 tournament despite crashing to defeat in their first match against Switzerland.

Lionel Scaloni's men still have the talent to turn things around, get through their group and progress from there, but things won't be easy now - matches against Mexico and Poland won't be easy.

On this remarkable afternoon in Qatar, Messi-mania briefly came to a juddering halt. The thousands of fans in shirts bearing his name trudged back to the metro station disconsolate, hoping for better days ahead.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1