LUSAIL, Qatar — Lionel Messi stood with his hands on his hips near the center circle, looking impassive as jubilant Saudi players ran in all directions around him after scoring one of the biggest upsets of the World Cup against the ‘Argentina.
The South American champion and one of the tournament favorites lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, in a deflating start to Messi’s quest to win the only major title that has eluded him.
Saudi Arabia’s return joins the list of other major World Cup upsets: Cameroon’s 1-0 victory over an Argentinian team led by Diego Maradona in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, victory Senegal 1-0 over defending champions France 1-0 in the 2002 tournament opener or the United States beating England by the same scoreline in 1950.
“Before the match, we were named favourites,” said Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni. “But these kinds of things can happen in a World Cup.”
Messi gave Argentina the lead in the 10th minute with a coldly delivered penalty and the game had the makings of a routine win for the defending Copa America champion, who was on a 36-game streak without defeat.
It didn’t happen that way.
Goals from Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari within five minutes early in the second half gave the Saudis a historic result at the first World Cup staged in the Middle East. The Saudis’ biggest previous victory was 1-0 against Belgium in the 1994 World Cup.
“All the stars lined up for us,” said Saudi coach Hervé Renard. “We made history in Saudi Arabia.”
Messi, 35, playing in his fifth – and likely last – World Cup for Argentina, scratched the side of his head and shook hands with a Saudi coach after the final whistle.
He walked towards the tunnel with a group of other Argentine players and looked crestfallen, a scene all too familiar for one of the greatest players of all time yet to win football’s ultimate prize.
“We screwed up in the second half,” said Argentina striker Lautaro Martinez. “The little details make the difference. We have to fix them.
The unlikely win was sealed with a somersault from Aldawsari, who brought down a high ball just inside the penalty area, spun Nahuel Molina with a ricochet, passed Leandro Paredes and unleashed a powerful shot into the far corner in the 53rd.
A stunned Messi watched as green-clad fans from Qatar’s neighbor Saudi Arabia celebrated in disbelief in the stands. The Saudi substitutes invaded the field.
Messi gave Argentina the lead from the penalty spot after the video assistant referee told the referee to take a look at a shirt grab by Saud Abdulhamid on Paredes.
Saudi Arabia had no shots on goal in the first half and looked set to concede more as they played with a high line that allowed Argentina to easily fall behind the Saudi defence.
The 48th-minute equalizer came on Saudi Arabia’s first shot on target, Alshehri finding the far corner with an angled finish that went through defender Cristian Romero’s legs and past goalkeeper Emi Martinez’s dive.
Goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais made two key saves late in the game to preserve the win.
Argentina face Mexico in their second Group C game on Saturday.
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Steve Douglas is on https://twitter.com/sdouglas80