It was barely past 9am and Argentinians everywhere were emerging from being glued to their TV screens, squinting into the bright morning sun, many wondering out loud if they had just woken up from a nightmare. In fact, it was their dream of winning the World Cup that had just been given a merciless reality check.
“We lost the match because of our own mistakes, especially in the second half,” a visibly shaken but remarkably composed Lautaro Martínez told the cameras pitch-side immediately after the final whistle.
It had been more than 100 minutes of one of the most unexpected dramas in World Cup history. The heavily hyped favourites, Argentina, led by Lionel Messi, lost to Saudi Arabia (ranked last but one in the competition) having gone 1-0 up. “There were [small] details that made the difference and we need to work on those and correct those errors,” Martínez added.
Make no doubt, this is one of Argentina’s worst-ever starts to a World Cup. Some are seeking solace in the fact that in 1990 an overconfident side boasting Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia lost unexpectedly to a Cameroon side that almost surprised themselves by scoring. Argentina went on to reach the final that year.
The mood in the country was sombre; the watching public as well as the pundits on TV staying calm. There was none of the vitriol often lashed out at the team; none of the accusatory armchair-manager stuff shouting about who should have come on instead, who should have been further back or more to the left … just utter disbelief, shock and sadness. The influencer Jero Freixas, referring to all the VAR calls and disallowed goals for Argentina in the first half, perhaps best summed up the kind of experience most had been through: “I shouted loads of goals and we lost.”
Freixas reaches a young audience and he pleaded for support and encouragement of Lionel Scaloni’s team to continue to fight hard, now more than ever. “We have to support them,” he wrote. “We have to support them because this squad brought us much, much happiness. Nobody wants to win as much as they do and they are probably sadder than anyone.”
The veteran football writer Daniel Arcucci said that it was part and parcel of being at a World Cup. “These things happen,” he said. “The best game of their lives for the underdog, the worst game of their lives for the favourites. Today Saudi Arabia brought back memories of Cameroon. Today was the match that Scaloni said one day would happen.”
Alejandro Wall of Tiempo Argentino wrote: “Saudi Arabia imposed themselves. They electrified the game and the stands, dissolving any Argentinian-ness. This is a huge blow for the national team, maybe the worst match ever of the Scaloni era, and it came in a World Cup opening game.”
Without VAR it might have been a very different story. But we have VAR now, and this is football. “We should have scored more than one goal in the first half but this is a World Cup and now we face two finals,” Martínez said.
When Scaloni and Messi eventually emerged to face the press they said they knew Saudi Arabia would play for the offside. They knew, they said, and yet …
But there seemed to be little mood for a forensic tactical analysis just yet. The nation – fans, pundits, and maybe even the squad – appear to have given themselves a little mourning period, to take on the emotional hit. Unlike more turbulent times in the history of this country’s loaded relationship with the national team, the love-in that has been in place since the Copa América was brought home 16 months ago, has not subsided. Yet.
There was a sense that the right team started the game, that the players did not make any obvious mistakes and that the substitutions were spot on. The emerging stars Enzo Fernández and Julián Álvarez came on and showed the calm courage the more senior teammates seemed to have lost as the second half progressed.
There is no denying this was a shock, though. For the squad and the highly praised coach – as well as the country. It is in one of its most frail economic situations in recent history with galloping inflation and until this morning everyone had hoped to pause normal life and just pursue the mission of winning the World Cup. Indeed, one minister even said: “Inflation can wait, first we need to win the cup.”
The country may need a plan B.