Argentina’s 2022 World Cup opener was meant to be a formality. Saudi Arabia, the 51st-ranked side in the world, awaited Lionel Messi & Co., who came into the tournament having last tasted defeat in July 2019.
Lionel Scaloni had facilitated a mammoth 36-game unbeaten run as La Albiceleste boss. They are the Copa America holders and one of the favourites to go all the way in Qatar.
A Messi penalty ten minutes in was believed to be the beginning of a procession for the Argentines, but Hervé Renard’s aggressive, spirited, and rugged Saudis ensured that the South Americans never got away.
A 1-0 half-time deficit quickly became a 2-1 advantage in five unforgettable second-half minutes as Renard’s men completed one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history.
The result leaves the 2014 beaten finalists in a somewhat perilous position in Group C with fixtures against Poland and Mexico upcoming. The threat of an early group-stage exit is genuine, but when was the last time Argentina failed to qualify for the World Cup knockouts?
This is Argentina’s 18th appearance at the World Cup and extends their run of playing at every tournament since 1970.
They’ve had contrasting fortunes in that time, winning the World Cup, finishing as runner-up, being dumped out of the quarter-finals and also exiting at the very first hurdle.
The two-time winners have endured World Cup humiliations like any other major player in the sport.
They were dumped out of the competition in the first round way back when in 1934. Argentina didn’t compete in the tournament between 1938 and 1954 before re-appearing in 1958 but a 6-1 thumping at the hands of Czechoslovakia on Matchday 3 saw them exit the competition in embarrassing fashion.
An early elimination ensued in 1962, and they failed to progress beyond the second round in 1974 and 1982 – Diego Maradona’s first World Cup.
While the structure of the tournament has changed considerably over the years, if you include the now defunct ‘second round’ as not being a part of the knockout phase, Argentina have failed to qualify for the latter stages of the World Cup six times in their history.
You’d have to go back to 2002 for the last time Argentina endured a group-stage exit at the World Cup.
Led by Marcelo Bielsa, La Albiceleste were among the pre-tournament favourites but they were drawn into the ‘group of death’ alongside England, Sweden and Nigeria.
Gabriel Batistuta lifted them to a 1-0 win over Nigeria in their group opener, but a vengeful David Beckham handed England victory over Bielsa’s side on Matchday 2. A late Hernan Crespo equaliser against Sweden on Matchday 3 wasn’t enough to save them as they crashed out in an incredibly tight group.
Sweden and England progressed with five points, while Argentina finished with four.
Defeat to Saudi Arabia is a huge setback, but Scaloni’s side can still progress into the round of 16.
Argentina were famously beaten by Cameroon in their 1990 group opener before eventually advancing to the final, and supporters will be hoping La Albiceleste embark on a similar journey in 2022.
Victories against Poland and Mexico should be enough for Argentina to qualify.