Argentina came into the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a 36-game unbeaten streak, the second-largest in the history of international football, only one game shy of Italy’s record. They were big favourites to win the trophy. They had everything going for them – a motivated star in Lionel Messi, an excellent supporting cast with experienced players, and young and hungry stalwarts ready to deliver.
And then, on the Lusail Iconic Stadium, the same arena where the final against France will be staged, Argentina was left in shock by a plucky Saudi Arabia team, which delivered a historic comeback after going down 1-0, to deliver one of the biggest shocks in the lore of the FIFA World Cup, taking a 2-1 win.
Stunned. Without any answer. Scratching their heads. Where would they go from this and how can such a shock be processed in so little time? Critics started to flow, Argentina were doomed, they had no horison in sight and were closer to being eliminated than to securing a place among the top teams in the world.
“We have faced five finals and we were lucky to win all of them,” said Lionel Messi after Argentina dispatched of Croatia in the semi-final at Qatar 2022, with a solid 3-0 win that saw the South American side seal their sixth final berth in the history of the side and the second in eight years.
Indeed, it was a superb achievement, one that could be even a historic one. If Argentina wins the trophy, they will be only the second team in history to have lost the first match at the FIFA World Cup and go all the way after Spain previously did it in 2010.
However, this was different. After the loss against Saudi Arabia, Argentina’s players were left stunned and could only mumble some words that they were going to become better, to unite and deliver a performance for the ages.
It mirrored, somewhat, what Messi said prior to the tournament in an interview for Argentinian newspaper Ole: “We have to know that it is a World Cup, that it’s going to be very difficult. Where all the details add up. That anything can happen in a match, that games don’t always follow a logic.”
What followed was immense. Hundreds of thousands of Argentinian fans flocking to the streets to celebrate the team’s next wins. Other tens of thousands said goodbye to their savings and booked a ticket to Qatar to see an unprecedented run of their team.
“We are 26 warriors, ready to fight for our dream,” added central defender Nicolas Otamendi, himself an integrant part of the team in this amazing run.
With any loss being synonymous with elimination, Argentina had to dig deep into its resources. They needed to act as a team, not as a bunch of individuals. But this World Cup was special. Prior to the tournament, Lionel Messi announced that Qatar 2022 will be the last world flagship football tournament he ever plays in.
Players like Rodrigo de Paul and Papu Gomez, who are his good friends outside the pitch, made it their mission to do anything in their power to help Messi win his first trophy at the FIFA World Cup. Others like Julian Alvarez and Enzo Fernandez, who grew up idolising Messi, also chimed in with outstanding games, with the former scoring a brace in the 3-0 win against Croatia.
“The worst word that comes to my head is emotion. I do this for 45 million people. Making them happy like this is the greatest feeling. We’re in the semi-final because we have passion and heart,” said goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez after saving two penalties in the quarter-final against the Netherlands.
And all of it boils down to the mood in the team created by coach Lionel Scaloni. It could have gone down very different, but Scaloni, who had little experience when he was named the coach of the team in 2018, helped Messi win the first international title with Argentina, the 2021 Copa America.
From that moment on, Messi was indebted to Scaloni and the “Scaloneta” was born, the nickname of the team that makes it all possible.
“Honestly, it makes me uncomfortable to hear this. But I can’t do much, just thank the people for their love for the team. If people like it, they have a good time with the team, that’s fine. But the truth is that it makes me uncomfortable,” said Scaloni.
Now after four wins and a draw against the Netherlands, a game that Argentina won on penalties, everything is possible. Even if the weight of the shirt is double when you are playing for the “Albiceleste”.
“Argentina is different from other national teams. It’s not the same to make your debut at a World Cup with the Argentinian jersey. It’s different.” It can be overwhelming,” concluded Scaloni.