The South American champions and one of the tournament favorites slumped to a 2-1 loss Tuesday against the second lowest-ranked team at the World Cup in a deflating start to Messi’s quest to win the one major title that has eluded him.
Asked how he felt after a painful start to his record fifth World Cup for Argentina, Messi said: "The truth? Dead. It's a very hard blow because we did not expect to start in this way.”
“We know the World Cup is this way,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said. “Sometimes you can steamroll the opponents and, in a couple of plays, you are losing.”
The match started with Messi giving Argentina the lead, calmly converting a penalty in the 10th minute for his 92nd international goal. It had all the makings of a routine win for the defending Copa America champions, who were on a 36-match unbeaten run — one short of the record in international soccer.
But goals by Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari in a five-minute span early in the second half gave the Saudis a landmark result in the first World Cup staged in the Middle East. Their previous biggest win was 1-0 over Belgium at the 1994 World Cup, secured by a storied individual goal by Saeed Al-Owairan.
“All the stars aligned for us,” Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard said. “We made history for Saudi football.”
Messi, 35, a seven-time world player of the year, who is playing in his fifth — and likely his final — World Cup for Argentina, has yet to win soccer's ultimate prize.
“This group always stood out for its evenness, its strength, and it is time to be more united than ever,” Messi said. “We have to go back to our training base and try to win the next game.”
“We are facing two finals now," said Argentina striker Lautaro Martinez, looking ahead of remaining group matches against Mexico and Poland. “We screwed it up in the second half."
The unlikely victory by a team made up entirely of Saudi-based players was sealed by a somersault by Aldawsari, who brought down a high ball just inside the penalty area, spun his way past Nahuel Molina with the help of a ricochet, dribbled past Leandro Paredes and drove a powerful shot to the far corner in the 53rd.
Saudi Arabia’s substitutes swarmed onto the field to congratulate Aldawsari, who sank to his knees after his post-goal acrobatics as green-clad fans celebrated in disbelief in the stands.
“It's one for the history books,” Renard said.
Such was Argentina's initial dominance that Saudi Arabia didn’t have a shot on goal in the first half, during which the Alibiceleste had three goals ruled out for offside as they repeatedly got behind the Saudis' high defensive line.
The 48th-minute equalizer came from Saudi Arabia's first attempt on target, with Alshehri finding the far corner with an angled finish that went through the legs of defender Cristian Romero and beyond the dive of goalkeeper Emi Martinez.
Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais made two diving saves during 14 minutes of stoppage time to preserve a win that shakes up the group.
Saudi Arabia's comeback joins the list of other major World Cup upsets: Cameroon’s 1-0 win over an Argentina team led by Diego Maradona in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup; Senegal’s 1-0 victory over defending champion France in the 2002 tournament opener; or the United States beating England by the same score in 1950.