/ 23 November 2022

Messi saw a ghost – and he won’t be the first

Argentina's forward Lionel Messi reacts during his team's opening round 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Antonin Thuillier/AFP via Getty Images

What doomed Argentina against Saudi Arabia? 

Was it that pedantic killjoy of an artificial intelligence system that spotted a tiny slice of Lautaro Martinez’s upper arm as offside, despite both his feet being deeper than the last Saudi defender, when they were 1-0 up and dominant in the first half?

Or was it Messi’s dependable return to his traditional World Cup malaise – that familiar shrinkage of his powers without the company of world-class clubmates? 

Was it the escalating roar of 50 000 Saudi fans urging their heroes to glory? Was it the adrenalised verve and skill of the Saudi side? Was it Herve Renard’s crafty game management?

It was probably all of those things, as well as a lot of other things we couldn’t see.

But the upshot is that this World Cup is officially cooking with unnatural gas. On the evidence so far, we’re in for an enthralling tournament: the players look unusually fit and fresh, with most of them entering their mid-season physical peak. On the other hand, the brain-melting pressure of the game’s greatest stage is already claiming famous casualties.

As soon as Salem Al-Dawsari struck his side’s gobsmacking second goal to take the lead, Messi and company seemed to drink in the dread. The scoreline was so subversive that the outcome seemed supernaturally fated to them. They could not shake off the creepy mist of panic and resignation. Every successful Saudi tackle, every misplaced Argentinian pass, seemed to confirm the inevitability of the outrage.

And it’s clearer than ever that Argentina are still haunted by their 36-year national backstory of World Cup dismay. They’re not alone. A quartet of powerful sides in this draw – Argentina, Netherlands, England and Brazil – are playing with a spectral 12th man on the pitch beside them: the ghost of failures past.

Supporters wave a banner depicting football legend Diego Maradona (L) and Argentina’s forward #10 Lionel Messi before the start of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, north of Doha on November 22, 2022. (Photo by Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)

All four countries have suffered decades of dissonance between their expectations and their performances at the mundial. Argentina have not lifted that lump of gold since 1986, despite deploying the game’s greatest player for nearly half the intervening era.

England haven’t claimed the World Cup since 1966, despite having invented the game and despite boasting the game’s richest and most competitive league. The Dutch have never done so, despite being the engine of the game’s tactical evolution over the past 50 years.

Brazil are much more accomplished at the World Cup – nobody has won more titles. But they haven’t triumphed for two decades and four editions of the mundial. And for Brazil, that means four tragedies on the trot.

Of the favourites, only Germany, France and Spain can hope to attack this World Cup without a complex.

Their relatively recent triumphs should – in theory – have inoculated them against the uncanny effect of mounting historical pressure.

But anybody can see a ghost when darkness falls.