By MARK LORENZANA
Despite controlling most of the match offensively and having several shots at goal, the Mexican National Team walked away from its opening game in Qatar with a scoreless draw against Poland on the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 22 (Mexico City time). On the same day, two-time champion Argentina, led by soccer legend Lionel Messi, was upset by a Saudi Arabia team ranked 51st in the world.
El Tri was actually fortunate enough to have walked away with a draw. Despite controlling possession in the match, the Mexicans failed to capitalize on several opportunities at goal, in what was an impressive performance by Poland’s goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczęsny. Mexico’s own goalkeeper, Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa, however, refused to be upstaged by his Polish counterpart as he blocked a penalty kick by Poland team captain and striker Robert Lewandowski — one of the best offensive soccer players in the game today, and widely considered as one of the best strikers of all time.
Ochoa’s save sent the mostly Mexican crowd — judging by the sea of green jerseys in the stadium, broken here and there by a smattering of Polish red — in a frenzy. The play before, which caused the referees to award a penalty kick to Poland after a video review, was deemed a foul by a Mexican player on Lewandowski, and the decision was greeted — naturally — with loud boos from the Mexican fans.
Meanwhile, powerhouse Argentina — the odds-on favorite in Group C, the same group that includes Mexico and Poland — was shockingly upset by a game Saudi Arabia club that played an excellent defensive game in the first half, and showed its offensive prowess in the second half.
Messi managed to score the first goal for Argentina — albeit on a penalty kick — but failed to score in the second half. Saleh Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari of Saudi, however, didn’t have such problems as they scored two goals within six minutes of each other, leaving Messi, the Argentinian National Team and Argentinian fans in disbelief.
To put the upset in perspective: The match was immediately put up there in the all-time ranking of upsets in World Cup History, which included Senegal defeating defending champion France in 2002, Italy losing to North Korea in 1966 and the United States beating England in 1950. The big difference? None of those favored — and eventually upset — teams had an all-time great like Messi.
“There are no excuses,” Messi said after the match. “It’s a tough blow for everyone. We didn’t expect to start like this. We haven’t gone through a situation like this in a long time.”
For his part, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said he was resigned to the fact that anything can happen in a World Cup tournament.
“We came into the game as the favorites, but in the World Cup these things can happen,” Scaloni said. “One goal can change everything.”
As it stands right now, the Saudi win just made everything complicated for all the teams in Group C. The lone Middle Eastern club in the group was perhaps seen by the rest of the field — Mexico, Poland and Argentina — as an easy win, but with Saudi Arabia’s shocking upset victory, it’s safe to say that perhaps that’s not the case anymore.
It might be a little more complicated for Mexico as well, as it will face Argentina and Messi in the next match, an Argentina and Messi who will be fired up and eager to get that first win — at the expense of El Tri.
If the same aggressive El Tri shows up, however, the one that showed up against Poland despite the missed goals, coupled with the magic of Ochoa — who keeps adding to his World Cup legend — then soccer fans are in for a treat.