DOHA – Lionel Messi returns to the World Cup for a fifth attempt at finally winning soccer’s biggest prize.
He'll also be hoping to make history with Argentina.
The Argentines are among the favorites to win in Qatar and victory would fill the one gaping hole in his resume. But a win or a draw Tuesday against Saudi Arabia, one of the weakest teams in the tournament, would give Argentina a record-tying result.
Argentina arrived in Qatar on a 36-match unbeaten streak, one shy of tying Italy's record in international men’s soccer, set from 2018-21.
Argentina has not lost since falling to Brazil 2-0 in the 2019 Copa América. Argentina first won the World Cup in 1978, and then again in 1986 — one year before Messi was born. The team reached the final in 2014 and lost to Germany, and in a bitter follow-up four years later was eliminated in the round of 16 in Russia.
Messi, meanwhile, is one of four players making their fifth World Cup appearance. He joins Portugal forward Cristiano Ronaldo, and Mexico teammates Guillermo Ochoa and Andrés Guardado.
Saudi Arabia was eliminated in the first round in 2018, opening with a 5-0 loss to host Russia. In a tough Group C that includes Mexico and Poland, the Saudis will be trying to advance out of the group stage for only the second time, after 1994. The team has won two of its last 10 matches.
Defending champion France opens play Tuesday against Australia in a rematch from four years ago.
France won 2-1 in Russia when Paul Pogba’s shot in the 81st minute deflected in off a defender for an own-goal. Pogba is not in the squad following knee surgery, and France is also down another two stars with N’Golo Kante and Karim Benzema sidelined.
France does expect defender Raphael Varane to play following a hamstring injury he picked up in October.
Kylian Mbappé is ready to lead France to back-to-back titles. He was only 19 when he scored in the final and helped France win the World Cup four years ago. With 28 international goals, Mbappé wants to add to his count in the Group D opener.
However, France arrived in Qatar with only one win in its last six games.
Australia barely made the World Cup field and needed a dramatic penalty shootout win over Peru in the playoffs. The Socceroos have been eliminated from the group stage in four of five previous appearances.
Mexico faces Poland, while Denmark plays Tunisia on the first of 11 consecutive days in which four games are played each day.
Poland advanced to the World Cup behind striker Robert Lewandowski, who scored nine goals with four assists in qualifying. His 13 direct-goal involvements were twice as many as any teammate.
He's never scored in the World Cup, though, as Poland finished last in its group in 2018. The Barcelona striker is eager to find the net in Qatar.
“I think about the last World Cup for sure,” Lewandowski said. “To score at a World Cup would be a huge dream and I’m going to do everything for this dream. I hope in this World Cup it will happen. I am glad for everything I have achieved and these memories for the World Cup, so now is the time to enjoy.”
Poland last advanced out of group stage in 1986.
Mexico, meanwhile, has advanced out of group play in each of its past eight appearances, last failing to move on in 1978. The national team has also won its opening match in five of its past six World Cups.
Christian Eriksen figures to play for Denmark against Tunisia, 17 months after he was revived on the field during the European Championship.
The Manchester United midfielder’s presence will be inspirational for Denmark, which sailed through its World Cup qualifying group by winning its first nine games — with clean sheets through the first eight.
Tunisia has been strong at keeping games tight but its World Cup record isn't great: Tunisia has lost 60% of its World Cup games (nine out of 15), trailing only Saudi Arabia and Australia.
The first few days of the World Cup have been been marred by logistical snags, the latest on Monday when fans complained their tickets to the England-Iran match had vanished from their mobile FIFA application.
Long lines grew outside the Khalifa International Stadium about an hour before kickoff with fans furious they might not get inside.
The night before, the official fan zone quickly became overcrowded during the opening match between host nation Qatar and Ecuador. Tens of thousands of fans pushed and shoved against police lines to enter the venue, one of the few places where fans could purchase beer and watch the game.
Canada coach John Herdman is expected to give a medical update on Tuesday regarding Alphonso Davies, who arrived in Qatar last week after receiving treatment on a hamstring strain he picked up this month while playing for Bayern Munich.
Bayern has said Davies’ participation in Qatar was “not at risk,” but he has not played since the Nov. 5 injury.
“My mission is to make sure he plays at this World Cup, it’s a childhood dream for him,” Herdman said. “And not to put him in a position where he’s unsafe.”
Read up on all 32 teams playing at the World Cup.
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