There was more time. When you are Lionel Messi, there is always more time. Another split-second to play the pass. Another couple of beats to wait for the space to open up. Another year to mount a challenge. Another World Cup to fight. And here, on a bright warm day in November, with the clocks striking 13 minutes of injury time, there were still a few more seconds for Argentina to make things right.
Messi advanced down the right channel, nudging the ball along with impatient taps of his left outstep. A little space had opened up in front of him in the Saudi Arabia midfield. Ángel Di María was making the overlapping run on the right wing. In between him and the goal stood three defenders. Briefly, thrillingly, you could see the cogs whirring as Messi contemplated taking them all on and saving the match on his own. Instead, the pass went sideways to Di María and the cross went nowhere. There is always more time.
Not here, perhaps, but later. There are two games remaining in this group, processes to be trusted, faith to be kept. Even after a disaster on this seismic and stunning scale, the methods that brought Argentina to Qatar as one of the tournament favourites on a run of 36 unbeaten games must remain intact, if only because they have little other choice. The stakes were always this high. The margins of failure were always this punishing.
Argentina’s fatal mistake here was in deluding themselves otherwise. The 21st century’s greatest World Cup shock did not immediately portend itself. As Saudi and Argentinian fans converged on the giant golden boat of the Lusail Stadium under cloudless midday skies, the atmosphere was almost festive: selfies on the metro, hugs on the concourses, Saudis wearing Messi shirts, Qataris wearing Messi shirts, Australian tourists wearing Messi shirts.
Nothing that unfolded in a vivid and entertaining first half seemed to shake that air of informality. It was 1-0, but the ball had hit the Saudi net so many times that it didn’t feel like a 1-0. In truth what was happening was that Hervé Renard’s immaculate defensive line was perfectly disrupting Argentina’s buildup, forcing them to go for a little more, to play the pass a little earlier or later than they would have liked. This was how Argentina scored – or didn’t score – their three offside goals.
Nobody seemed overly perturbed at any of this. There was, after all, always more time.
What of Messi? Well, he got his goal, a delightful confidence trick of a penalty in the 10th minute. But for the most part he too was easing himself into the tournament, sniffing the air, trying to keep a lid on things. We already knew this about him, of course: the way he likes to spend the opening minutes just walking and watching, getting to know the shape and heft of the game, working out where the spaces might open up. Messi is probably the only guy in the world who actually reads all the terms and conditions.
But at the same time Argentina seemed to soften a little, convinced that all they needed to do was to manage the game through to its inevitable conclusion. More and more their attacks began to break down, or dissolve into harmless spells of possession. Meanwhile the precise physicality of the Saudi defensive rearguard was beginning to disrupt them. Every single Saudi outfield player made at least one tackle. Eight of them blocked a shot. They attacked bravely and directly, Firas al-Buraikan and Salem al-Dawsari striding up the flanks like lone soldiers sprinting across no-man’s-land. Slowly and by degrees, Saudi Arabia were beginning to sharpen the game to a point.
Even so, when Saudi Arabia’s equaliser came it still felt like something of a miracle, and was greeted as such by a deafening wall of Saudi pride and Saudi songs, Saudi men and more Saudi men. Certainly Argentina seemed stunned by the violence and suddenness of the assault. Rarely, if ever, can they have played a World Cup game in a neutral stadium and felt so thoroughly outnumbered, out-chanted, outmatched. And it was in those infamous few minutes that the game was lost. Eardrums still stinging, hearts still pumping, heads still rattling, Nawaf al-Abid tried a curling shot, Di María and Leandro Paredes lunged hopelessly at the rebound, and Dawsari fired the ball into the top corner to screams of anguish and disbelief.
What did Argentina have left? As the tackles continued to pile in, as the crosses rained down on the goal of Mohammed al-Owais, as the Saudis in the crowd shredded what was left of their nerves, perhaps this is what will concern Lionel Scaloni most. The blend of urgency and composure that characterises all the great teams was entirely absent here: too bloodless in the first half, too confused in the second. The withdrawal of Paredes unbalanced them in midfield, and short of giving the ball to Messi they were bereft of ideas in the final third.
This is not a team that have gone stale overnight. But whatever serenity, stability or momentum they had built up over the past three years has been shattered. Every remaining minute of their World Cup will now be played with a knife between their teeth, which could ultimately forge them or break them. Messi’s own international career has never felt closer to oblivion. There is still time. But it is swiftly running out.