Leo Messi has been the face of Argentine soccer since 2004, even though he left the country for Spain at the age of 13. He’s as famous for his prowess in La Liga, as a champion with FC Barcelona, and, for the past two seasons, as the face of Paris St. Germain in the French Ligue 1. But when it comes to the highest level competitons, Messi dons the powder blue and white of his homeland, and has typically been reliable. Indeed, Argentina had not lost an international competition in over three years, in 36 matches.
And to the most unlikely opponent imaginable, at least on paper. Saudi Arabia, ranked 51st in the world per FIFA and 31st in this year’s draw (behind even host nation Qatar), somehow scored two spectacular goals on a mere three shots and pulled off what Gracenote calculated to be the longest shot victory in World Cup history, 2-1, before a giddy, Saudi-partisan crowd.
Messi did indeed score Argentina’s goal, a 10th minute penalty kick that gave Argentina an early lead, his seventh World Cup goal in a record-equaling fifth different year. But then Argentina’s offense lagged for the balance of the match, and via the legs of the now-immortal Salem Aldawsari, the Saudis pulled off a victory that, more than 90 times out of 100 in simultations, would never have occurred.
So how did this happen?
Well, the Sun (yes, the British tabloids do have good reporters), offered up one possible explanation, which is actually based on some sound reporting from last week from a solid U.S. online entity:
The Athletic reported this week that the Paris Saint-Germain hitman had inked a £25m a year deal with the controversial country in May.
And the Saudis in attendance at the Lusail Iconic Stadium made their feelings known as the all-time great took to the pitch for their Group C clash.
A requirement for Messi’s deal with Saudi requires him to promote the country.