Messi is thriving off the responsibility of creating a fairytale World Cup swansong | World Cup 2022

How do you stop someone who seems to have capabilities that are beyond human? That is the question that no player or team that has gone up against Lionel Messi at this World Cup has been able to answer. Next in line to try to stop the unstoppable and end Messi’s hunt for the missing piece of his trophy puzzle will be the Netherlands on Friday evening.

At 35 years old this is potentially the Argentinian’s final World Cup and he is thriving. Thriving off the responsibility and expectation, almost as if the fact that this could be his last chance has lifted the pressure that comes with all that.

I was a centre-back for England and played domestically in England, Sweden and the US. Occasionally, you come up against players who just strike fear into you. For me, there were a few but the Brazilian forward and six-time Fifa world player of the year Marta stands out. She was, and is, similar to Messi. She had that characteristic close-ball control with added trickery, using all parts of her foot to control and dribble and roll and change direction. As a defender it was always hard to try to keep her in one direction and force her away from dangerous areas. The Arsenal forward Vivianne Miedema is probably the modern‑day equivalent that I faced in the women’s game.

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She reads where and when players drop their weight with the same speed and intelligence. She waits for you to commit yourself and if you drop a shoulder or you angle your body to take control of the situation, she’ll either feint you or go around you. In situations where you expect her to take a shot early, often she doesn’t, instead she puts you on the floor, goes again and then creates a clearer scoring opportunity for herself. I can only imagine what stepping out opposite Messi must feel like.

It’s almost like he has a gravitational pull and he himself has a gravitational force, pulling and twisting and managing the movement of the ball like it’s a part of his orbit. He has such a continuity in his movement when he’s on the ball, when he’s dribbling with that close-ball control with such effortless grace. His first touch, which is nearly always sublime, means he doesn’t ever give you an inch of space. Often as a defender you’re counting on putting pressure on at the first touch, if it’s a poor touch you have a chance of stopping them. However his first touch is often so good that defenders are stopped dead in their tracks, and he’s able to just skip by them.

One of the only ways to defend against Messi is to do it in numbers. I would want to pull in the defenders around me, drag my wing-back in, have my centre-back close to me, maybe my deep-lying central midfielder offering support and focus on trying to get in the way of those passing lines that he so often finds. But the problem is that he also thrives in those situations. He sucks players towards him. He wants three or four players swarming him with pressure and when that happens he finds the pass. He knows where the space is, he knows where his spare man is, and he’ll find him. If it’s not that, he’s drawing the foul and then we all know what he can do with a free-kick.

Lionel Messi at an Argentina training session.
Lionel Messi shows off his technical skills at an Argentina training session. Photograph: Jorge Sáenz/AP

The alternative is being exposed to Messi one v one and that’s only really going to end one way. When you see him approaching, you often see defenders almost shift onto their tiptoes, waiting to see what direction he’s going, and none of them want to dive in because he’s also a nutmeg master. The minute you get half a step towards him he’s putting the ball through your legs or putting it around and you running around to collect. It’s over before you’ve had time to even try and guess and it looks a humiliation. But how can you be humiliated? It’s Messi. That’s his bread and butter. He makes the best defenders in the world look average time and time again.

A lot of what is special about him is enhanced by his low centre of gravity. That helps his agility, his ability to read where players drop their weight and to utilise his momentum to shift from dribbling slow, sucking players in, to then speeding it up. He does that with an unrivalled fluidity, he doesn’t have to stop and push again, he can just keep going and ramp it up. It’s hard to stop someone with that level of momentum coming towards you. You end up getting pulled into positions you don’t want to be in and doing things that are uncharacteristic.

Not enough is said about the vision of players such as Messi off the ball too. Lots of people talk about scanning, but not everyone does it and not everyone does it effectively. The best players in the world do it the most often. Messi is the sort of player who is constantly looking over his shoulder, analysing where he can pick up those little pockets of space between players, in between units, and the smallest of spaces is all he needs to operate in, which is wild.

What is perhaps most exhilarating about watching him in this tournament is that he is in form but also that he looks like he is thoroughly enjoying this potential last ride. If Argentina win the World Cup? Well, what a way to cap off the huge joy we’ve all had witnessing him play.

Argentina’s success against Socceroos ‘brings out the fire’ in Lionel Messi | World Cup 2022

Oh, Aziz. You’ve done it now. The second it happened, Argentina’s players knew there was only one way this was going to end. Anyone who has watched Lionel Messi a lot did, and there has been a lot of him to watch. By the time they left the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, scene of his 1,000th game, his teammate Alexis Mac Allister was laughing about it, the apparent inevitability of it all. Australia had picked the wrong guy: that’s not a knife, this is a knife.

There were 10 minutes to go until half-time, there had been little sign of a breakthrough, and Messi had given the ball away the last two times he had it, when he and Aziz Behich clashed out on the right touchline. The Dundee United player barged him, grabbed his shirt and had a word or five. He also gave away a foul. Messi reacted: twice. First he faced up to his opponent, then he took the free kick, fast. Within seconds, Argentina had the lead and their captain had scored his 789th career goal – seven hundred and eighty nine – and his first in a World Cup knock out.

Heading across from the touchline, Messi had rolled it towards Mac Allister, turned and continued to the area. “I always try to pass to him, try to make sure the ball gets to him because if he has it everything’s much easier,” the midfielder said, three hours later, but this time was different. Yet if one of those rare moments when he wasn’t looking for Messi, still he still found him, like the ball has a will of its own. And, let’s face it, whose feet would you rather the ball fell at?

“The pass was for Otamendi, but it came to Messi, which was a bit of a surprise,” Mac Allister admitted, mission accomplished if accidentally. Otamendi lost control – “I told Leo it was an assist,” he joked later – but Messi rescued it, took a touch and then played another pass, this time into the net. The shot went through the legs of Stoke’s Harry Souttar – alas, it was neither wet nor Wednesday – and beyond the dive of Matty Ryan. It was Argentina’s first shot on target, and the first time he had been in the area.

Lionel Messi of Argentina leaves three Australian defenders trailing.
Lionel Messi of Argentina leaves three Australian defenders trailing. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

“It’s probably the only chance I’ll ever get to share the pitch with arguably the greatest to ever do it [and] it’s a bit surreal, a moment to reflect on at the end: to look back and say you got to compete with one of the greatest,” Australia’s Jackson Irvine said. “What stands out is his understanding of the game, how he picks and chooses his moments to come to life. And when he does he’s hard to stop. We controlled him so well for most of the first half, but it’s that one little moment, that one half-metre you give him. We’ve seen it hundreds of times: so ruthless, so clinical, and ultimately that was the difference.”

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There was just one doubt. Had Messi chosen that moment himself? Or had Behich – who, it should be said, almost scored the goal of the World Cup when for a moment he was more Messi than Messi – accidentally chosen it for him? A rule going back years reads: don’t piss off “La Pulga”. Behich had done that, waking something in him, the animal within, and payback was swift. After all, when it was later suggested that the first thought Argentina’s players had when they saw the foul was “oh, you fool”, that they could see it coming, Mac Allister laughed. “For sure, for sure,” he replied.

“When those things happen, it brings out the fire he has inside, the personality he has, and that makes him even greater than he is,” the Brighton midfielder said. “He always tries to give his best but those moments work for him, they’re useful: he plays even better, and in games like he’s even greater yet. He has those touches that appear from nowhere and win you the game.”

“He is the most important player we have: he knows that, he helps us a lot and we are proud to have him,” Mac Allister said. “I enjoy playing with him, it makes me happy: for me he’s the best player in history of the world.”

Not everyone agrees back home. Mac Allister’s father, Carlos “Colorado” Mac Allister played just three times for Argentina, his international career lasting less than a month and taking in two matches against Australia in the playoff that took them to the 1994 World Cup and a friendly against Germany wedged in the middle. At least he can, and does, always say that his captain then was Argentina’s other great No 10, Diego Maradona. His son’s captain is the man trying to emulate him.

“We always have that argument,” Mac Allister junior said. “For my dad, Maradona was very important, not just in his career but in his personal life and he is very grateful. For me, it’s a source of pride to be at Leo’s side and play with him. For me obviously he’s the best in history. We argue: he says Maradona is the best ever; I say it’s Messi. It’s a discussion I don’t think will ever end.”

Argentina 2-1 Australia: World Cup last 16 player ratings | World Cup 2022

Argentina (4-1-2-3)

Emiliano Martinez (GK) For 96 minutes the Aston Villa goalkeeper was notable only for the Argentinian flag dyed onto the side of his head. But in the 97th minute he reacted magnificently to deny Garang Kuol one-on-one and secure his country’s passage. 7

Nahuel Molina (RB) Like most of Argentina’s defensive-minded players Molina’s job for most of the night was to keep the ball in motion and not lose concentration. Job done. 6

Cristian Romero (CB) Untroubled by Mitchell Duke’s physicality and Australia’s direct lines of attack but remains a surprise selection ahead of Lisandro Martinez. 6

Nicolás Otamendi (CB) The veteran was busy at both ends of the pitch, defending stoutly, attempting 97 passes, and playing his part in the opening goal by providing a screen for Lionel Messi, then getting out of his captain’s way. 7

Marcos Acuña (LB) Plenty of collisions, theatrics, and dangerous crosses in an eye-catching display from the chunky little bull down the left. Acuña looks and plays like he was designed in a lab to fit the prototype of a South American World Cup bruiser. 7

Rodrigo De Paul (CM) Demonstrated plenty of graft in midfield to ensure his side was never bullied by Australia. It was his hustle that forced Mat Ryan into the catastrophic error that led to the second goal. 7

Enzo Fernández (CM) Just 21 years old and with only three international caps coming into the tournament, the Benfica regista was Argentina’s metronome. Nobody on the field touched the ball more often, and his 100 passes were executed with 92% efficiency. The only criticism would be how safe most of those passes were, circulating play from one side to the other without offering much incision. Credited with an own goal but he could do little about the massive deflection as he charged out to block Craig Goodwin’s shot. 7

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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Alexis Mac Allister (CM) Busy and neat in the first half without taking the game by the scruff of the neck. Played his part in the opening goal, providing the two to Messi’s one as the ball came infield and the legend darted towards the box. 6

Papu Gómez (LW) The veteran was a late bolter for the squad, and then a surprise stand-in for the injured Angel Di Maria. He only lasted 50 minutes before he was sacrificed for Lisandro Martinez and a change of shape, but in that time he contributed to the opening goal by knocking the headed clearance from the corner on the volley to Messi with excellent technique. 6

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring the opener.
Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring the opener. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Lionel Messi (AM) In his 1,000th professional match Messi scored his 94th goal for for his country, and his first in a World Cup knockout. The goal was of the type you see when you close your eyes and dream of Messi; a slow build-up, a quicksilver change of pace, a one-two around the box, then a side-foot into the far corner beyond the goalkeeper. Around the goal it wasn’t his finest night. He looked fatigued and spent most of the game walking, but still head and shoulders the most dangerous player on the park. 8

Julián Álvarez (RW) The Manchester City youngster burnished his growing reputation with an energetic display that showed he will not shirk the rough and tumble. His goal ultimately proved the difference, and it was a smart finish after Ryan clumsily tried to run the ball out of his six-yard box. 7


Lisandro Martinez (50) Brought on just after the break to turn a back four into a five and his inclusion was justified late on with a trademark last-ditch block to deny Aziz Behich. 7

Nicolás Tagliafico (71) Dragged a good opportunity wide to seal the victory shortly after coming on. Didn’t seem to trust his speed to get closer to goal or his technique to beat Ryan from the edge of the box. 5

Lautaro Martinez (71) How do you rate a striker who repeatedly finds himself in the right position to score but then fails to execute in front of goal? In a 20-minute cameo the Inter forward pulled off the shoulder of the last defender time and again but side-footed over with only Ryan to beat, then shot straight at the keeper, before having a deflected effort saved. 6

Gonzalo Montiel and Exequiel Palacios (80) Brought on late to secure a narrow victory. n/a

Australia (4-5-1)

Mat Ryan (GK) A disastrous night for Australia’s captain on the occasion of his national record 10th World Cup appearance. He had little chance stopping Messi’s opener, but he was badly at fault for Argentina’s second, trying to dribble out of his six-yard box and succumbing to the pincer movement of De Paul and Álvarez. Some good saves late on demonstrated strength of character, but this result will weigh heavy on his head. 5

Miloš Degenek (RB) The third of Australia’s three right-backs this World Cup played his part in a robust defensive showing. His head-to-head with Acuña was classic World Cup theatre. 6

Harry Souttar (CB) It has been a memorable tournament for the giant centre-half and again he did not disgrace himself against storied opposition. Graham Arnold will be disappointed the Stoke City defender wasn’t more of a threat from set pieces. 7

Fran Karacic and Harry Souttar defend resolutely.
Fran Karacic and Harry Souttar defend resolutely. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Kye Rowles (CB) At times this tournament the gangly central defender has looked like a juvenile giraffe coming to terms with the length of his limbs, but his partnership with Souttar held firm for most of the night. The highlight was when he stood his ground to deny Messi a sight of goal when the Argentinian was weaving his magic. The lowlight was his role playing Ryan into difficulty, from which his keeper never escaped. 6

Aziz Behich (LB) Australia’s most dynamic presence, Behich was always willing to get forward from fullback, relished the scrap, and so nearly scored one of the all-time World Cup wonder goals before Martinez slid in to break Australian hearts. His industry and cross led to the clearance that allowed Goodwin to strike Australia’s consolation goal, but his hot-headedness also precipitated Argentina’s opener when, after squaring up to Messi on the touchline he allowed Gomez to draw a foul in a dangerous area that ultimately led to the goal. 7

Mathew Leckie (RM) As hardworking as ever but denied time and space by Argentina’s control of possession. 6

Aaron Mooy (CM) So often Australia’s most influential force, the Celtic schemer was below par tonight. His range of passing was limited by Argentina’s territorial dominance and he was unable to hit targets from deep. As has been the case all World Cup his set-pieces were poor, preventing Souttar from capitalising on an obvious strength. 5

Keanu Baccus (CM) Brought in to stiffen Australia’s midfield, he was busy early on, keeping a close eye on Messi, as Australia held their own. Drifted as the game wore on and offered nothing at all in possession. The obvious player to be substituted after Argentina’s second goal went in. 5

Jackson Irvine (CM) Played further forward than in the three previous matches but that didn’t prevent another all-action display. He set the tone with a yellow card after just 15 minutes but never stopped trying to support Duke in attack or helping out his defence. He leaves Qatar with his reputation enhanced. 6

Riley McGree (LM) It’s hard to know what to make of McGree’s tournament. Tonight he put in a shift wide on the left but failed to make any attacking impact, consistent with a World Cup full of endeavour but only glimpses of quality. Sacrificed after an hour for Goodwin, before which he sent over Australia’s first corner of the month to find Souttar’s forehead. 5

Mitchell Duke (CF) Chased every lost cause and got through a mountain of work as Australia’s sole target up front, but never looked like threatening Argentina’s defence. 5

Substitute Garang Kuol goes close to a late equaliser.
Substitute Garang Kuol goes close to a late equaliser. Photograph: Mike Hewitt/FIFA/Getty Images


Ajdin Hrustic (58) The playmaker came into this World Cup his country’s brightest prospect but injury denied him a fast start and he has never caught up. Ineffective again tonight off the bench. 5

Craig Goodwin (58) Another Australian to leave the World Cup with his name in lights. He injected pace as a substitute and gambled with his speculative shot from the edge of the box that was deflected past Martinez. Another guilty of poor set-piece delivery. 6

Garang Kuol (72) Australia’s youngest ever male World Cup performer had the country on its feet in the 97th minute and only the keeper to beat, but Martinez was too big and strong to deny the fairytale ending. 5

Jamie Maclaren (72) Made little impression off the bench. This side is not set up for a nippy No 9 who plays in behind. 5

Fran Karačić (72) Did his job after coming on, including a nice interception to deny Martinez. 6

Socceroos push Argentina all the way and exit World Cup as Australian heroes | Australia

Aziz Behich had fire in his eyes and a protest on his lips, remonstrating as if he hadn’t just needlessly upended Papu Gomez. The referee was hearing none of it – emotion gets you nowhere on this stage. The left-back had done it simply because he was pissed off, rankled by a shoulder charge from Lionel Messi that was every bit as legitimate as his subsequent move was not.

World Cup matches are decided by moments. By the angled head of Mitchell Duke and the cut inside of Mat Leckie. By a free-kick for Messi near the corner flag. And it had to be him. History will show tonight was all about Messi. About his 1,000th match and his first goal in the knockout stages of a World Cup. If Argentina go on to win the thing, Australia will be nothing more than a step in the right direction.

In that sense, there are worse ways for the Socceroos to go than to be a part of a bigger positive story than their own big positive story. They could have been knocked out by, say, a dive in the box from Fabio Grosso, or an underwhelming group-stage showing in which they scored no goals from open play. Qatar 2022 was not Australia’s tournament, but it was also very much Australia’s tournament. It was the tournament of dancing in Federation Square and pop-up live sites around the country, of politicians with open ears and maybe now even open wallets, and of once again waking up at stupid hours for a reason other than to engage in self-flagellation under the guise of supporting your national team.

The Socceroos – including an otherwise-excellent Behich – will return home as heroes. Their coach, overseeing the final game of his contract, may have just bought himself another – if he wants it. After the opening goal, Graham Arnold’s hands followed Messi’s to the sky but for a very different reason, the sign of a heart and soul, poured into this project for four and a half years, on a comedown from the heavenly place he has inhabited for the past 10 days.

“I just hope that everyone back in Australia really respects what we’ve done and are proud of us as well,” Arnold said afterwards. “We took it to them. I felt that we finished off well. We had a great chance at the end there to equalise. I’ve got to be very, very proud of the boys. Just so grateful at the effort they’ve put in for me.”

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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Of course, the post-mortem will include some if onlys. If only Behich did not blow a gasket. If only a defender was standing in the exact spot Messi placed his finish instead of in the five spots directly surrounding the needle he threaded through them. If only, when there was still a chance of an equaliser, Mat Ryan had made that clearance the first time instead of attempting to dribble past Rodrigo De Paul.

Mat Ryan’s heavy touch leads to Argentina’s opener.
Mat Ryan’s heavy touch leads to Argentina’s second goal. Photograph: Javier García/REX/Shutterstock

But the overriding story is that this was not a bad Socceroos performance. Those match-deciding errors aside, it was a very good performance with all the makings of yet another upset of a much higher power. It was worthy of a team reaching the quarter-finals; the moving mass of blue-and-white tension in the stands confirmed it to be so. Australia forced the issue, yanked Messi out of his first-half dormancy, made him come alive even if to their own detriment. They were a lump in the throat of football gods for all the world to see.

Fans react as Argentina ends Australia’s World Cup hopes – video

Keanu Baccus, who not three weeks ago had Messi in his fantasy five-a-side team, shirt-fronted his hero in the opening minutes. The St Mirren man was here to play Paris Saint-Germain. It perfectly encapsulated the lack of deference that rendered this contest far closer to equal on the field than it appeared on paper.

The almost comeback did that too. With almost 80 minutes gone, Craig Goodwin smashed an errant shot that took a deflection and flew into the far corner. Behich, having long rededicated himself to the cause, took off an a run for the ages, a slalom past four players which would have made for one of the great goals of this World Cup had his shot not been blocked by a stretching Lisandro Martinez. Garang Kuol almost announced himself to the world but for a brilliant intervention by Emi Martinez at the death.

It was Mozart’s Requiem, the Socceroos pursued by death but still writing their own funeral on the edge of consciousness, willing it into existence with their final breaths. Now they are gone, but leave behind a brilliant score.

Lionel Messi, Argentina’s pavement artist who sees shapes before others | World Cup 2022

The thing that made the goal was the touch; one of those touches where Lionel Messi doesn’t so much trap the ball or kill it but lets it come and nestle, falling asleep on his toe like a fond old cat.

There were still six more touches to go before the ball would be left spinning, with a kind of purr, in the back of Mat Ryan’s net. But it was the touch that set the clock running, as the ball was looped back out to Messi on the touchline from his own free-kick.

You could see straight away that Messi had felt that familiar surge of static, seen the numbers whirring, the spaces start to yawn. Footballers are often said to carry a picture in their head. Messi has a great whirring bank of air traffic controller’s screens up there, alternate visions of the future to scroll through and finesse.

The touch spun the ball out in front of him, enough to draw the closest Australian shirt into his arc. This was a mistake. Don’t run towards Messi. His dribbling is a kind of judo-throw effect these days, using his opponent’s movement to trampoline into space.

Messi sniped away. He had time now. Messi gets a kind of pre-screening of these things, sees the shapes before anyone else, like a pavement artist conjuring Notre-Dame out of four chalk lines. He laid the ball back to Alexis Mac Allister, then sped in a straight line towards the thing he knew would happen next.

Mac Allister laid the ball in to Nicolás Otamendi. His touch was clumsy, but Otamendi had felt things thing starting to happen too. He performed a lovely little backwards sway, like a man leaping clear of the spray from a passing lorry.

Messi took the ball and had time to take another step, to open his hips slightly as he ran, the movement hidden in his stride, but enough to ease the ball to Ryan’s right, into the far corner and out of his reach. The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium erupted into a barrelling wave of noise on three sides, that distinctly Argentinian football noise, a shout of recognition as well as joy.

Twenty minutes into the second half, with Argentina 2-0 up after Julián Álvarez’s delightful steal swivel and finish, Messi did something for fun, a kind of roll through the greatest hits. Taking the ball in the centre circle he just decided to keep running, conjuring the ghosts of the Camp Nou, that surging, mulletted miracle of snap and spring. He ran out of space, smiled, jogged back, as the Bin Ali took the chance to sing his name.

And this is the thing with Messi. Every game is now a kind of Russian roulette. Click the hammer. Is this it? That sense of jeopardy, the fear that this might be the last of Messi on this stage will now move on to the quarter-finals of Qatar 2022.

How far can Argentina take him in this thing? Here they held on at times, almost ran away at others. Australia were dogged, dragged the score back to 2-1 and will feel they showed the best of themselves. Argentina have their weaknesses. But they also have a sense of heat about them. They kept to the 4-3-3 from the Poland game here, which may just come to stand as a step change for this team.

Lionel Messi shields the ball from a posse of Australia defenders.
Lionel Messi shields the ball from a posse of Australia defenders. Photograph: José Sena Goulão/EPA

At the last World Cup Argentina were subservient to Messi, a team constructed to serve their sun king, litter-bearers for the princeling in their midst. Messi became almost inert, the still centre of this imperial bureaucracy.

As a false 9 in this team he is simply a free agent, with three expert midfield rats behind, runners up front, and in the middle of this the orb, the seer, the floating brain.

The Ahmad bin Ali Stadium is a lightweight, fun, fizzy thing dumped down in the overflow carpark of the Mall of Qatar. It looks like a giant wedding cake decoration, or the world’s most imperious pop-up ice rink.

Mixing with the Argentinian fans here has been a fascinating contrast. In the middle of all these gleaming surfaces, here is something disorderly and ragged. Argentinian football isn’t just passionate or patriotic. It is devotional. And here the ground was packed with blue and white shirts, laced with those familiar songs, the warm wave of noise.

As the game kicked off Messi could be seen swinging his arms, loosening up, as though it had just occurred to him he was about to do some exercise. He walked for a bit. He took up a position miles in front of the rest of his team, the small, slouching, baggy shirted chimney sweep at the top of the tree.

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Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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Graham Arnold likes to make the occasion small, to reduce it to simple human possibilities, will, desire, taking the moment. He talks about the “Aussie DNA”, a scrap-happy, fight-in-the-dog kind of schtick. Australia did fight here, but Argentina had enough to resist. And they now roll on, three games from the summit.

Another striking aspect was the love at the end as Messi led the celebrations, the feeling of the moment being cherished and locked in. It hasn’t always been this way. No other footballer has been so exposed to the glare, so relentlessly seen, analysed, venerated, bathed in light. Another one down. But there may just be a few more spins of the chamber before this thing is done.

Lionel Messi guides Argentina to victory over Australia despite late scare | World Cup 2022

Nothing this precious ever came easy. Argentina qualified for the quarter-finals of the World Cup with a performance that mixed two parts ecstasy with one part agony. They secured a two-goal lead through Lionel Messi and Julián Álvarez, played some of their most unfettered and spellbinding football of the tournament so far, peppered the Australian goal with shots during a gripping second half.

And yet, did you expect Australia to sit down and accept their fate? This Australia, with its SPFL stalwarts, its honest journeymen, its plethora of guys with surnames as first names? Australia took the hard road to Qatar and they took the hard road out of it, outgunned but never outrun, even burgling a late consolation goal and threatening an almighty shock.

They may not be stuffed with household names. They may have been given the run-around by the world’s greatest player for an hour. But they left every piece of themselves on that pitch, and somehow you sense the game Down Under will never be quite the same.

For half an hour it looked as though Australia might just succeed in dragging Argentina down to their level. They may have been outnumbered in the stands, where the armies of Albiceleste wrapped a tight tourniquet of noise around the pitch and barely stopped squeezing. But on the pitch it was the gold shirts who initially looked busier, buzzier, more numerous. They covered more ground, won most of the second balls, counterattacked with decent numbers.

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Photograph: Caspar Benson

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Argentina, by contrast, looked a little sleepy, having come through a draining game against Poland just three nights earlier. Though they kept the ball well, the urgency and the craft and the speculative runs weren’t quite there. Their press was surprisingly light: not so much a press, indeed, as a series of polite inquiries. Keanu Baccus, of St Mirren, was having a good game in the Australia midfield.

Meanwhile, Messi whirled and twirled away. He probed the channels, pottered from wing to wing, dived deep into the green waters of midfield. He was fouled by Keanu Baccus, of St Mirren. He saw a couple of passes cut out. It was, in other words, a quiet sort of game for the world’s greatest player. At which point Aziz Behich, of Dundee United, did something that, when it comes to the debrief, he might just regret.

It was 10 minutes before half-time and Messi was tussling for a ball near the right touchline. Behich, of Dundee United, barged him off the ball, grabbed a piece of his shirt, gave Messi a sharp Melburnian sledge whose contents will sadly be lost to history. Messi’s angry reaction was the first real human moment we had seen from him all night.

Maybe it meant something. Maybe it meant nothing. All we know that a few seconds later, Messi collected the ball on the right wing, knocked the ball to Alexis Mac Allister 30 yards out, and charged into the penalty area. With a speed and conviction we have not always seen from him this tournament, he picked up Mac Allister’s pass via the touch of Nicolás Otamendi and slid the ball into the bottom corner the way he has done several hundred times before, but never through the legs of Harry Souttar, of Stoke City. It was his first kick in the penalty area all game.

Julián Álvarez takes the ball off Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan to double Argentina’s lead.
Julián Álvarez takes the ball off Australia goalkeeper Mathew Ryan to double Argentina’s lead. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

That was the cue for Lionel Scaloni to make a change. In the second half he brought on Lisandro Martínez and switched to a back three. Had he been burned by the defeat to Saudi Arabia? Either way, it gave Argentina a width and verticality that suited them, with Australia beginning to push forward. They were playing with more energy now, more brio and swagger. Messi made a couple of brisk runs that evoked his electrifying peak. And so as Matt Ryan, of FC Copenhagen, received a routine back pass, Rodrigo de Paul sprinted towards him, murderously closing down his angles.

Ryan tried to dribble his way out of trouble. It was a moment of pure impulse, the sort of act where you can already hear the whoops of acclaim from the crowd, perhaps even glimpse your fleeting moment of viral fame. Unfortunately, in ducking clear of De Paul, he forgot that Álvarez was lurking behind him. Álvarez nicked the ball. Álvarez finished beautifully with his momentum taking him away from goal. Ryan blinked blankly. He could hear the whoops of acclaim. He could glimpse the viral notoriety. But this wasn’t the way he had planned it.

But things didn’t quite go the way Argentina planned them, either. Scaloni wheeled out his substitutes, the drummers in the Argentina end paced them home and thoughts began to turn to the quarter-final against the Netherlands. It was at this point that Craig Goodwin, of Adelaide United, took a wild shot from 30 yards. Enzo Fernández got a deflection on it. And somehow a second later the ball was looping into the top corner, with Emi Martínez totally flummoxed.

For a few minutes Australia’s players shook with belief, their fans with disbelief. They would have their moments too: Behich of Dundee United with the sort of brilliant mazy dribble they are well used to at Tannadice Park, Lisandro Martínez with a miraculous block. In the dying seconds of stoppage time Garang Kuol found himself alone with Emi Martínez, who saved his shot with a flying left hand. Argentina breathed again, and now they dream again.

‘Let’s play ball’: Poland pray for more in World Cup last-16 tie against France | World Cup 2022

Zagrajmy w piłkę” – “Let’s play ball”. That was the headline instruction, front and centre, on the Polish website on Thursday morning after the tense, chaotic conclusion to Group C the night before. Poland had stumbled into the last 16 of the World Cup with a performance so devoid of ambition that the domestic media coverage seemed more like a postmortem than a celebration of reaching the knockout stages for the first time since 1986.

It should have been a day of jubilation. Instead, there seemed to be a wide sense of embarrassment. “We will not tell our grandchildren by the fireplace years later about how the Polish national team progressed from the group at the 2022 World Cup,” wrote Dariusz Tuzimek for “When they ask about it, we’ll try to change the subject.”

“Should Lewandowski be ashamed? The whole world saw that,” was the question in the headline of Tuzimek’s article. “One Wojciech Szczesny was not enough for Argentina and Messi, but still we got through,” said, a reference to the goalkeeper’s individual heroics in defeat, including a breathtaking first-half penalty save from Lionel Messi.

Facing Argentina and Messi was never going to be straightforward. Yet it was still a frustratingly poor, disjointed display from a team that began the evening top of Group C and in control of their destiny. By the end they were left counting yellow cards – and praying.

As has so often been the case at Poland’s recent tournament appearances, Lewandowski was left isolated, despite Karol Swiderski being nominally selected to play alongside him. The Barcelona forward was left fighting for scraps: on the occasions Poland did win possession he sometimes battled impressively to win a free-kick around halfway. But he never threatened to make a significant impact, certainly not compared to the ever-threatening Messi.

Swiderski, who did not look sure what he was supposed to be doing, mostly became an extra defender rather than a companion for Lewandowski. Even when Lewandowski’s teammates got close enough to link, it felt fragmented and lacking fluency. Despite a lack of service Lewandowski was not above criticism, either. Rather than attempting to inspire the team after they fell behind after half-time, he appeared increasingly withdrawn, his body language negative.

Lautaro Martínez consoles Piotr Zielinski after Argentina’s 2-0 win at Stadium 974 – before it emerged that Poland had squeezed into the last 16
Lautaro Martínez consoles Piotr Zielinski after Argentina’s 2-0 win at Stadium 974 – before it emerged that Poland had squeezed into the last 16. Photograph: Jennifer Lorenzini/Reuters

The closest Poland came to scoring, appropriately, was a set piece nodded fractionally wide by the centre-back Kamil Glik.

After the final whistle at Stadium 974, when coverage switched to Mexico v Saudi Arabia, it was an immediate reminder of what matches look like when both teams pose an attacking threat. The Saudis underlined the point during a thrilling conclusion by scoring a beautifully worked goal that in effect ended Mexico’s hopes of progress.

The former defender and Poland captain Jacek Bak said Napoli’s Piotr Zielinski was the team’s “invisible representative”. He wondered aloud whether the playmaker had “a mental problem” when playing for his country.

It seemed an appropriate question given the 28-year-old’s indifferent performance against Argentina, give or take a couple of decent set-piece deliveries. Zielinski is the creative lynchpin for Luciano Spalletti’s Partenopei, who lead Serie A by eight points. They are unbeaten in the league, with 13 wins from 15 matches, and have scored 37 goals. In September they memorably thrashed Liverpool 4-1 in the Champions League.

Where is that swashbuckling player? And could the fault lie not with the players but the coach, Czeslaw Michniewicz? Would Zielinski perform better in a central position, where his range of passing and searching runs could do more damage? He also needs someone to shore up the central areas to give him licence to attack. Unfortunately Qatar 2022 appears to be a tournament too far for the former Sevilla, Paris Saint-Germain and West Bromwich Albion holding midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak.

There is a parallel between Poland’s frustrating, traumatic history at major tournaments and England’s travails pre-Russia 2018. They do not lack talent but they never seem able to fully show it, to become equal to or greater than the sum of their parts. Many of the players seem fearful of harsh media treatment, conscious of the anger stirred up when pre-tournament hype is regularly replaced by another limp failure.

They have often been paralysed by the potential consequences of elimination, rather than motivated by the ever-elusive rewards of success at a World Cup. The cumulative effect of so many disappointments feeds the anxiety.

Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé
French forward talent such as Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé await Poland in the World Cup last 16. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The good news? They are still in the game. There were times when Poland succeeded in shackling Messi, Ángel Di María and Julián Álvarez quite effectively. At times, driving runs by the full-backs, Matty Cash and Bartosz Bereszynski, helped to make inroads.

Collectively they must carry that defensive solidity into Sunday’s last-16 meeting with Kylian Mbappé and friends. But they must also find a way to take the game to the world champions, to cherish possession rather than surrender it. Standing off and inviting pressure will be a one-way ticket home.

Has anyone told Poland – and Michniewicz – that this is meant to be the greatest show on earth? Their supporters must pray they will find a way to release the handbrake against France. Support Lewandowski, unleash Zielinski. Zagrajmy w piłkę: Let’s play ball.

England are World Cup contenders. Does it matter if they are any good? | World Cup 2022

Three games into their World Cup campaign, 11 games into 2022, 79 games into Gareth Southgate’s reign, the question remains unanswered: are England actually any good?

To which there are probably two answers. The first is simple: yes, reasonably. They finished top of their group. They were joint top-scorers alongside Spain. They kept two clean sheets. The second is a weary sigh as any discussion of England is immediately submerged by hackneyed debates about arrogance and expectation, set against a backdrop of implausible ideals of breezy attacking perfection. What even is good?

Belgium, their golden generation well and truly past it, were dreadful at this World Cup. They scored one goal, were outplayed in two of their three games and looked utterly fed up in the third. As Roberto Martínez tearfully announced he would not be staying on as manager, batting away questions from the media that ranged from gently disappointed to nakedly antagonistic, the temptation for an outsider was to wonder just what people expect.

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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At the 2018 World Cup, Belgium played superbly to beat Brazil in the quarter-final before losing to the eventual champions, France. At Euro 2020, with Kevin De Bruyne struggling with injury, they lost their quarter-final to the eventual champions, Italy. If that is failure, very few people in any walk of life have ever been anything else. This may have been an extraordinarily gifted generation, but other countries have good players too.

For Southgate, then, is anything short of winning the World Cup failure? Perhaps not even that would be enough. Although Alf Ramsey, the one England manager to win something, was hailed in the moment, it wasn’t long before he was being blamed for ushering in a culture of negativity, the radicalism of his approach overlooked or unrecognised; reticent and repressed he may have been, but Ramsey was a revolutionary nonetheless.

Southgate’s record far outstrips every England coach since. He has taken England to two of the six semi-finals they have reached. He is responsible for five of their 14 victories in knockout games at major tournaments. Yet still the mood since the Euros final has been grouchy. He’s too negative. He has to take the handbrake off. He has to unleash this great glut of forwards. Why, oh why, oh why is there no place for [insert name of Premier League creator du jour here]? History will look back and ask why [delete as appropriate: Phil Foden/Marcus Rashford/Jack Grealish/Mason Mount/Bukayo Saka] was left on the bench.

Lionel Messi after Argentina reached the last 16
Lionel Messi is driving Argentina on and they face Australia in the last 16. Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

It’s all nonsense, of course. Major tournaments are short. Freakish things happen. Far too much is read into individual games. For years Germany got to semis and beyond largely by dint of being German. Then, 20 years ago, they decided they actually wanted to be good at football as well. They created the dominant way of thinking about the game and yet have gone out in the group stage in the last two tournaments.

In Qatar they were so befuddled their hopes came down to Niclas Füllkrug, a journeyman striker apparently selected because he was the nearest thing anybody could find in the modern Bundesliga to Horst Hrubesch. It’s not ill luck, Hansi Flick said, it’s inability. Well, perhaps, but it was also ill luck. Should the whole Reboot be rethought for the sake of eight minutes of weirdness against Japan – in which they conceded twice – that ended up mattering only because Spain had three minutes of weirdness against Japan in which they conceded twice?

It is often asked before tournaments what would represent success. A semi-final? A quarter-final? But that’s an inadequate metric. A team can play appallingly and go deep thanks to good fortune and a kind draw. Or a team can play brilliantly, delight the world, yet be defeated early in a classic against another great side, or be undone by bad luck, or implode. Denmark of 1986, all mullets and attacking vigour, linger in the consciousness as one of the great World Cup sides; the England of 2006, a sad gloop of barely distinguishable games overshadowed by the hedonism of Baden-Baden, do not: yet that England went further in the competition.

Yet after the penalty shootout defeats of 1990, 1996 and 1998, there has been a sense that England were done with heroic failure. Give us a trophy and never mind how. In that context ‘good’ is probably too vague a term. Do England look like they could win the tournament? Perhaps, but these things are best judged in retrospect. There are exceptions – Spain in 2010, despite their opening defeat, or West Germany in 1990, maybe Brazil in 2002 if only because of the haste with which rivals fell away – but few World Cup winners have looked like champions all the way.

Four years ago, France needed their wobble against Argentina; four years before that, it took the near loss against Algeria and Jogi Löw’s contemplative run along the beach in Rio to set Germany on the path to glory; in 2006, Italy only seemed credible contenders after their two extra-time goals against Germany in the semi-final.

Croatia’s Luka Modric (right) in action against Belgium
Croatia’s manager said his team are ‘exhausted’ but Luka Modric (right) still appears full of energy. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Groups are for getting through but, for what it’s worth, England had a better group-stage record than any winner since Brazil 20 years ago. There are positive signs. Harry Maguire may have become a term of ridicule in the Ghanaian parliament but his partnership with John Stones has looked a lot more secure than was feared. Southgate has often failed to made decisive changes during games but against the USA and Wales his tweaks had a positive impact. England have often been over-reliant on Harry Kane to score goals but in Qatar they have had six different scorers, none of them Kane – who has nonetheless played a key role with three assists.

Brazil, Spain and France have all produced periods of football that seem beyond anything England are capable of, but they have all had dips as well. Argentina, fuelled almost entirely by the Lionel Messi narrative, have spluttered, only really getting going against a supine Poland. The Netherlands seem still to be waiting for Memphis Depay to recover fitness. Portugal plod on in the unmoving shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego, aided by a couple of odd penalties. Croatia, by their manager Zlatko Dalic’s assessment after the 0-0 draw against Belgium, are finally “exhausted”.

But the truth is that any of the sides in the last 16 could beat England, and England could beat any of the sides in the last 16. Given Southgate’s preference for a back three when he envisages a battle for possession, England probably haven’t even yet played the shape they will use against the best opponents.

Are they any good? It’s far too early to tell – and may be for some time.

Socceroos put fandom to one side in bid to foil Lionel Messi and Argentina | World Cup 2022

In Doha, the World Cup is Lionel Messi. Or, Lionel Messi is the World Cup. It’s hard to tell which at this point – the city is saturated with him. Messi is the face of billboards and the blue and white of flags. He is rip-off merch and dodgy Photoshop jobs, and every second No 10 shirt in the streets (hi, Diego).

Last Tuesday he was the “Where’s Messi” chants of Saudi Arabia fans at the Metro, and on Saturday the honks of car horns when he scored against Mexico. On Wednesday – even after missing a penalty against Poland – he was cheered from the stands made of 974 shipping containers.

Messi is not even short in this country – he is as tall as the skyscrapers digitally enhanced with his super-sized goal celebration. He is, after all, Qatar’s luxury brand: Paris Saint-Germain. He is Indian and Nepalese and Sri Lankan, too, and especially Bangladeshi. He is also, counterintuitively, Saudi Arabian.

Doha is so Messi right now it is almost satirical. And maybe it sort of is – he has won seven Ballon d’Ors but not a single World Cup. That is why this tournament is all about him. Why Argentina must go all the way for their 35-year-old GOAT who now has everything except the most glorious of sendoffs.

It is also why an Australian defender is sharing his devilish plot to foil the grand plan, but also being a bit nice about it too, because it’s Messi. “Unfortunately,” says Miloš Degenek, “I am a big fan of his. But I’d love to win the World Cup probably more than [I’d love] him to win the World Cup.”

Degenek would have been right behind Argentina to go all the way for their captain and talisman, except that Australia now have to face them in the round of 16. “They’re obviously driven by the motivation that it could be Messi’s last World Cup, and he wants to win it and end on a high,” Degenek says. “For us, it’s to stop that.

“I’ve always loved Messi. I think he’s the greatest to ever play the game. [But] it’s not an honour to play against him, because he’s just a human, as we all are. It’s an honour to be in the round of 16 of a World Cup. Whether we played Argentina or Poland, it still would’ve been an honour to represent Australia in the round of 16 of a World Cup.”

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This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

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The fact the Socceroos are here at all is something of sporting folklore in Australia. Wednesday’s upset of Denmark did the unthinkable, and now all bets are off – even against the world’s third-ranked nation and its irresistible playmaker who has betrayed no signs he will bow out quietly.

Argentina have their eyes fixed on a quarter-final date with either the Netherlands or United States. That is how this story goes – everyone is saying it. Except, that is, for the 38th-ranked Australians, who love a good dose of external doubt to see them through.

“It’s going to be a difficult game,” says Degenek. “Obviously we’ll be playing against probably the best footballer ever to grace the game. Apart from that, it’s 11 against 11. There’s not 11 Messis, there’s one. We know their squad is full of stars – [Paulo] Dybala is on the bench and [Lautaro] Martínez comes off the bench, so it’s a squad that’s immaculate.”

Milos Degenek is aware of the threat Argentina pose beyond Messi.
Milos Degenek is aware of the threat Argentina pose beyond Messi. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

The numbers around the market value of each of these squads have been crunched elsewhere, but suffice to say there is something of a disparity. Australia’s main well of strength in this most unexpected of campaigns has been the collective. A star team not a team of stars, as they say. How that stacks up to a team of stars who, until last week, were unbeaten in 36 games, will not become clear until Saturday night (Sunday morning AEDT) at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.

But surely there is a plan for Messi? “We’ll get him in the tunnel,” says head coach Graham Arnold. “No, sorry, that was a joke. But the thing is, if you focus too much on Messi you forget about the other players. I think [Poland] focused too much on Messi. Nearest player, pick him up. It can’t be just one, and it’s not just about stopping Messi – they’ve also got some very good players as well.”

The Socceroos – before their history-making back-to-back wins and clean sheets against Tunisia and Denmark – endured a chastening tournament-opener against France, who have their own PSG super-brand in Kylian Mbappé. Arnold chalked that 4-1 loss off as a “friendly”, a learning experience.

“Obviously this one can’t be classified as a friendly,” Degenek says. “France [are] probably the favourites at the World Cup at the moment with the players they have. But I think Argentina, after their first loss, have just turned up another level, decided to play to the best of their abilities, and come into every game with a determination to win.

“We’ve learned a lot from the France game. We showed them a bit of respect in that first game, and I think [Argentina] will be a completely different game. But it’s two completely different styles of football – France play one way, Argentina will play a different way.”

‘Don’t get cards’: How Poland’s strange World Cup progression played out | World Cup 2022

“They were shouting at us from the bench: ‘Don’t concede. Don’t get cards,’” Piotr Zielinski said laughing, which he could do at last do. “Strange,” the Poland midfielder called it. Somehow, they were still standing. They had lost their final group match 2-0 against Argentina on Wednesday but had survived a Lionel Messi penalty and 23 shots, including one cleared off the line in stoppage time, and progressed to the last 16 by virtue of having collected two yellow cards fewer than Mexico. Or at least that’s what they thought when the final whistle went.

As it turned out, a goal for Saudi Arabia in the fifth minute of added time, scored 25km north at the exact moment that Messi and Robert Lewandowski were embracing post-game, covering their mouths to exchange words, would mean Poland progressed on goal difference. But 2-0 down against Argentina at Stadium 974 while Mexico were leading by the same score at Lusail, the two teams tied on everything in Group C, the lifeline they had clung on to was fair play.

“For the last 10 minutes of our game we knew that yellow cards would probably decide,” Lewandowski said. “We had heard that Mexico were ‘only’ 2-0 up. We knew then: we have to believe but also play carefully and not get a yellow card again. When Saudi Arabia scored, we knew that luck was on our side.”

Quick Guide

Qatar: beyond the football


This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

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That Poland had got that far owed much to Wojciech Szczesny, who not only superbly saved a penalty from Messi but made eight more stops and touched the ball more than any of his teammates, three times more than Lewandowski. He had lost a bet in the process, too. He was convinced VAR was not going to give Argentina a penalty when his hand caught Messi as he reached for a deep cross. He was wrong.

“We spoke before the penalty and I bet him €100 he wasn’t going to get it and so that’s a bet I lost against Messi,” he said. “I don’t know if I am allowed to do that. I am probably going to get banned for that. I don’t care right now. And I’m not going to pay him either. He doesn’t care about €100, come on.”

Wojciech Szczesny

“Anything I say about Szczesny will fall short,” Zielinski said. “Honestly, he did incredible things. He’s one of the best in the world and we’re very happy to have him.”

Despite that penalty save late in the first half, Argentina scored twice, in the 46th and 67th minutes. Meanwhile, goals in the 47th and 52nd minutes put Mexico ahead and left the group on a knife-edge. At times it was a bizarre sight. Rather than chasing a goal – “I was a defender first today,” Lewandowski said – Poland decided the best approach was for nothing to happen. But how do you defend for your lives without making a tackle? How do you run down the clock without running up the cards?

With a little help from Argentina perhaps? “It did go through my head to go to those who play in Italy but I thought it would be ugly to do that,” said Zielinski, a Napoli midfielder. “It was strange. We produced an ugly game and we have to improve now that we are going to face the world champions.

“We haven’t shown how well we can play. We have given the ball to our opponents and we have to change. Against France it will be different. We have to have more courage, more will to do them damage.

“We could have paid for [the approach] but we’re very happy. It’s been more than 30 years since we got through a group [in 1986].”

Poland’s Piotr Zielinski shadows Argentina’s Lionel Messi
Poland’s Piotr Zielinski shadows Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Fifa/Getty Images

Asked what it was like to face Messi, Zielinski said: “Brilliant. It’s a delight to see him play – poetry. He’s a genius. There are difficult situations and he makes them look easy. Suddenly there’s a pass, a one-on-one.”

At the end Messi and Lewandowski embraced and words were exchanged. “We talked a bit, it was fun,” the Poland captain said. “I told Messi that I was playing more defensively than normal but sometimes that’s what the team needs.”

When Messi was asked what was said between the two, he took it as his cue to leave. “I had felt very angry to have missed the penalty but the team reacted and produced a very good performance,” the Argentina captain said before that. “We played very well, we were what we had been for a long time. We had lots of chances and that is good for us to prepare what’s coming up.

“Tomorrow we will start preparing for Australia. The games are all very close together but it’s the same for everyone. They played a couple of hours earlier before us, no more. This was the hottest day of the three we have played, it was very humid and we had to make an extra effort.”

Messi had just broken Diego Maradona’s record for World Cup appearances, he is now on 22. “I only just found that out. I didn’t know,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to keep getting these kinds of records. Diego would be very happy for me. He always showed me a lot of affection, he was always happy for me and the good things that happened to me.”