It was a peculiar sight that had never been seen before.
Argentina and its top player, Lionel Messi, celebrated having won Group C and advancing to the knockout round after a 2-0 win against Poland at Stadium 974 in Doha on Wednesday. The match resulted in Argentina advancing to the knockout stage. But Poland was also rejoicing in the aftermath of its victory. An unusual response to a loss was shown by a number of its players when they grouped together on the field around a smartphone, then celebrated and embraced each other.
Mexico had been leading Saudi Arabia 2-0 with a few minutes still left in extra time in the second game that was being played that night in Group C. The match was being played in Lusail Stadium, which is a 30-minute drive away. In the event that the score remained the same, Mexico would end up tied with Poland with 4 points. However, Mexico’s run of going to the knockout round in seven consecutive World Cups would come to an end if they were to lose the sixth — yes, the sixth — tiebreaker between them and Poland, which was the amount of yellow and red cards received by each squad.
However, when Salem al-Dawsari scored the game-winning goal in the fifth minute of extra time — and with three minutes remained in the game — the disparity in the number of yellow cards received by Mexico and Poland became irrelevant. Suddenly, Mexico’s goal difference was worse than Poland’s, and as a result, Mexico was in danger of losing the first tiebreaker. The players from Poland celebrated joyfully as they watched the game on the TV. Then, only a few seconds later, when the final whistle had blown on Mexico’s 2-1 victory, they celebrated their nation’s advancement to the knockout stage for the first time since 1986.
Wednesday served as a tension-filled appetiser for the knockout stage, which will begin on Saturday. In the meanwhile, the drama of the knockout stage will commence. Prior to the start of the day, both Argentina and Poland were aware of their objective: win and progress. However, all teams were aware, as was Mexico, of the potential outcomes that would allow Mexico to catch up to any of the other teams in the rankings. In the event that Poland defeated Argentina, Mexico needed to win the game and score many goals.
Argentina was able to control its own destiny. After suffering one of the most shocking defeats in World Cup history in its first match against Saudi Arabia, Argentina bounced back to win both of its subsequent games against Mexico and Poland.
Wojciech Szczesny, the goalkeeper for Poland, stopped shot after shot throughout the first half of Wednesday’s match against Argentina, but Argentina scored almost immediately after the break. The first goal for Argentina was scored by Alexis Mac Allister, a midfielder, off of a cross that was provided by Nahuel Molina in the 46th minute. And then, in the 67th minute, attacker Julián Alvarez scored his team’s second goal by firing a shot through an increasingly narrow opening created by Polish defenders.
But by that point, Mexico had already taken a 2-0 lead against Saudi Arabia, which meant that all of the teams involved were swiftly revising their mental calculations. Michniewicz said that he and his coaches had come to an agreement that they would not notify their players about the Mexico-Saudi Arabia game that was now taking place “until nothing awful occurred.” According to him, at one time he did notify a few other people, including the captain of Poland’s national team, Robert Lewandowski.
In the 86th minute, an attempt by the Argentine striker Lautaro Martnez to make a shot that would have changed the rankings in the group, propelled Mexico to the knockout round, and sent Poland home was just missed wide. Moreover, in the third minute of additional time, Poland was rescued by defender Jakub Kiwior, who headed a kick by Nicolás Tagliafico that would have also advanced Mexico to the subsequent round.
After the final whistle, players from Poland and Argentina embraced and shook hands with one another. Among those players were Messi and Lewandowski. In spite of the fact that Szczesny saved a penalty shot from Messi in the 39th minute, Messi’s younger colleagues helped shoulder the strain.
However, after the customary postmatch handshakes and greetings, Poland’s players remained on the field. After al-Dawsari scored for Saudi Arabia against Mexico, it no longer mattered if they were unable to score in the closing minutes of their match against Argentina or that they were concerned about their overall number of yellow cards.
Poland did, and now it has a difficult path ahead: on Sunday, it will play France, the winner of Group D and the team that is now holding the title for the World Cup. And Argentina and Messi, in what is likely to be his last try to capture a trophy that has long evaded him, will have an easier path: On Saturday, they will play the Australia team that finished second in Group D.