DOHA, Qatar — It was an odd and unprecedented scene.
After a 2-0 victory over Poland at Stadium 974 in Doha on Wednesday, Argentina and its top star, Lionel Messi, celebrated having won Group C and advanced to the knockout stage. But Poland was also exalting following its loss. Many of its players huddled on the field around a cellphone, and then cheered and hugged as well, a strange reaction following a defeat.
A 30-minute drive away at Lusail Stadium, in the night’s other Group C game, Mexico had been leading Saudi Arabia, 2-0, with a handful of minutes still remaining in extra time. If that score held, Mexico would finish with 4 points, the same as Poland. But Mexico’s streak of advancing to the knockout stage in seven straight World Cups would end by virtue of losing the sixth — yes, the sixth — tiebreaker between it and Poland: each team’s number of yellow and red cards.
But when Salem al-Dawsari scored in the fifth minute of added time — and with three minutes remaining in the game — the difference in yellows cards between Mexico and Poland became moot. Suddenly, Mexico had a worse goal differential than Poland and thus was losing the first tiebreaker. Watching on the screen, Poland’s players rejoiced. Then moments later, after the final whistle in Mexico’s 2-1 win, they celebrated their country’s first trip to the knockout stage since 1986.
“Sometimes defeats are bittersweet, or sweet and bitter,” Poland Coach Czeslaw Michniewicz said through an interpreter. “But we went through, after many many years.”
The drama of the knockout stage awaits — it begins on Saturday — but Wednesday provided a tension-filled teaser. Entering the day, the mission was clear for Argentina and Poland: win and advance. But both teams knew — as did Mexico — of the scenarios in which Mexico could catch one of the other teams in the standings. If Argentina beat Poland, Mexico needed to win — and score a lot of goals.
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Argentina took care of its own fate. After losing to Saudi Arabia in its first game — one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history — Argentina rebounded and toppled Mexico and then Poland.
Poland’s goalkeeper, Wojciech Szczesny, turned away shot after shot in the first half on Wednesday, but Argentina quickly broke through in the second. In the 46th minute, midfielder Alexis Mac Allister chipped in a cross by Nahuel Molina for Argentina’s first goal. And in the 67th minute, forward Julián Álvarez fired a shot through a closing window of Polish defenders for his team’s second score.
But by then Mexico was leading Saudi Arabia by 2-0, which meant all the teams involved were quickly readjusting the math in their heads. Michniewicz said he and his coaches had an agreement in which they would not tell their players about the ongoing Mexico-Saudi Arabia game “unless nothing bad happened.” At one point, he said, he did tell Poland’s captain, Robert Lewandowski, and a few others.
Knowing they had an edge in yellow cards — and thus the opportunity to advance if the scores held — Poland changed its approach. It played conservatively, trying to avoid being too aggressive as to draw more yellow cards through hard fouls. It also tried to score, but that proved challenging against an Argentine team that was focused on preserving the win.
In the 78th minute, Michniewicz said his heart sank. The midfielder Grzegorz Krychowiak was issued a yellow card for a tough slide tackle. Poland’s yellow card margin had shrunk, and it now had five total to Mexico’s seven. Five minutes later, Michniewicz pulled Krychowiak from the game and replaced him with forward Krzysztof Piatek for offense.
“We wanted to avoid yellow cards and to score,” Michniewicz said. “That’s why we had another striker in. But Argentina didn’t allow us.”
In the 86th minute, Argentine forward Lautaro Martínez just missed wide on a shot that would have altered the group standings and sent Mexico to the knockout stage and Poland home. And in third minute of added time, defender Jakub Kiwior saved Poland by heading a kick by Nicolás Tagliafico that would have also sent Mexico to the next round.
After the final whistle, players from Poland and Argentina, including Messi and Lewandowski, shook hands and hugged. Although Messi had a penalty kick saved by Szczesny in the 39th minute, his younger teammates helped carry the load.
“We have a spectacular group and people who deliver,” Messi said afterward in Spanish. “Because it’s such a short tournament and so many games in a row that it’s good that we have everyone.”
But after the usual postgame pleasantries, Poland’s players lingered on the field. The fact that they couldn’t score late against Argentina or worried about their yellow card total didn’t matter anymore when al-Dawsari scored for Saudi Arabia against Mexico. While Poland gets to advance, Mexico’s players and its coach awaited questions and criticism back home for failing to reach the knockout stage for the first time since 1978.
“I assume the responsibility of this huge failure,” Mexico Coach Gerardo Martino said, adding that his contract expired after the final whistle.
Added Mexico midfielder Luis Chávez, who scored in the 52nd minute: “I’m really sad because we stopped doing many of the things from the first two matches. We reacted a bit too late. We knew we still had hopes of qualifying but we didn’t achieve it.”
Poland did, though, and now faces a tough road ahead: It will face France, the Group D winner and the reigning World Cup champion, on Sunday. And Argentina and Messi, in what is likely his final attempt to win a title that has long eluded him, will face an easier path: They will face the Group D runner-up Australia on Saturday.
As his postgame news conference neared 1 a.m. and he kept fielding questions about his team advancing despite its poor play, Michniewicz stopped talking and looked down at his cellphone. It was buzzing.
“It’s really late and the prime minister is calling,” he said.