LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Lionel Messi stood with his hands on his hips near the center circle and looked petrified as Saudi Arabia’s jubilant players ran in all directions around him after delivering one of their biggest upsets against Argentina scored at a World Cup.
The South American champions and one of the tournament favorites collapsed with a 2-1 defeat by Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, marking a disappointing start to Messi’s quest for the only major title he has eluded.
Saudi Arabia’s comeback joins the list of other big upsets at the World Cup: Cameroon’s 1-0 win over a Diego Maradona-led Argentine team in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup, Senegal’s 1-0 win over holders France with 1: 0 in 2002 tournament opening or the United States beating England by the same score in 1950.
“Before the game, we were named favorites,” said Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni. “But something like that can happen at a World Cup.”
Messi gave Argentina the lead in the 10th minute with a coolly executed penalty and the game had the makings of a routine win for the 36-game unbeaten Copa America champions.
Didn’t turn out that way.
Goals from Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari within five minutes early in the second half gave the Saudis an outstanding result at the inaugural World Cup in the Middle East. The Saudis’ biggest win to date was a 1-0 win over Belgium at the 1994 World Cup.
“All the stars are pointing towards us,” said Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard. “We made history for Saudi football.”
The 35-year-old Messi, who is playing for Argentina in his fifth – and likely last – World Cup, scratched the side of his head and shook hands with a Saudi coaching staff after the final whistle.
He walked towards the tunnel with a group of other Argentinian players looking dejected, an all too familiar scene for one of the greatest players of all time who is yet to win football’s ultimate prize.
“We blew it in the second half,” said Argentina striker Lautaro Martinez. “Small details make the difference. We have to fix them.”
The unlikely win was sealed by a somersault from Aldawsari, who brought a high ball down inside the box, ricocheted Nahuel Molina around, moved past Leandro Paredes and sent 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. Saudi Arabia’s substitutes poured onto the field.
Messi put Argentina ahead from the penalty spot after the video assistant referee told the referee to take a look at a Saud Abdulhamid jersey grab on Paredes.
Saudi Arabia didn’t have a shot on target in the first half and looked like they would concede more by playing with a high line, causing Argentina to easily fall behind in the Saudi defense.
The equalizer in the 48th minute came from Saudi Arabia’s first shot on goal when Alshehri hit the far corner with a slanted finish that went through the legs of defender Cristian Romero and over goalkeeper Emi Martinez’s jump.
Goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais made two key saves late in the game to salvage the win.
Argentina meet Mexico in their second Group C game on Saturday.
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Steve Douglas can be reached at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80