Or so we thought. That’s the thing about fairytales. They are so called because they rarely come true and two hours after Lionel Messi had converted a penalty, he was stood near the halfway line, hands on his hips, barely able to comprehend what had happened.
And what had happened was a result that will be recalled and referenced in decades to come, how Saudi Arabia and their journeymen took down the squad that many believe are destined to contest the final in this very arena – the magnificent Lusail Stadium – on December 18.
For context, Argentina 1 Saudi Arabia 2 will now get mentioned alongside United States 1 England 0 (1950), Spain 0 Northern Ireland 1 (1982) and France 0 Senegal 1 (2002) for scorelines that left you open-mouthed in disbelief.
What a magnificent spectacle this was, played out to a soundtrack of ear-splitting noise and Arabian fervour. The atmosphere, especially in the chaotic second period, was gloriously partisan and the sense of occasion – and history – was not lost on anyone.
Argentina had arrived here as heavy odds-on favourites to extend an unbeaten run of 36 matches, a sequence that began in November 2019 and had seen them win in a Copa America and inaugural Finalissima in the intervening years, and all seemed as if it would go to plan.
It looked easy for them in those opening 10 minutes, with Messi having his first shot after less than 100 seconds (he should have scored) and converting from the penalty spot when VAR deemed that Leandro Paredes had been wrestled to the floor. A penny for Harry Maguire’s thoughts on that one.
Saudi Arabia had no inclination to attack and didn’t threaten to have a shot on target during the first half; the sole intention of head coach Herve Renard was to try and frustrate Argentina by playing a high-risk, high line defence to catch their vaunted opponents offside.
With the help of VAR and some fractionally mistimed runs, it worked as Messi and Lautaro Martinez (twice) had goals disallowed by the most slender of margins. The way the game flowed, it seemed inevitable that Argentina would spring the trap once and get the buffer they needed.
What followed in the second half was quite extraordinary. The Saudi fans created a tempest, roaring on their team and interspersing it all with chants of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole!’ – it all proved to be quite inspirational.
They levelled in the 49th minute when Saleh Al-Shehri, a 29-year-old forward for Al Hilal, took advantage of Tottenham’s Christian Romero not reacting quickly enough and his shot, with a bobble, spun away from Emi Martinez’s dive.
You could feel the power shift in an instant. All around there were green shirts hooting and hollering – screaming even – that their team had pegged back one of the favourites but, quickly, it was about to get so much better.
In what seemed like their next attack, again down Argentina’s right, Al Dawsari, another Al Hilal player, shaped to go one way before cutting inside and unleashing the strike of his life, a shot that whizzed past Martinez, the Aston Villa goalkeeper, before he realised what had happened.
Some of the games so far have felt artificial – the opening one between Qatar and Ecuador in particular – but this was bedlam, wonderful bedlam, everything that football at a major tournament should be when different cultures and styles collide.
The question from here was what Argentina could summon in response. History tells you they have been vulnerable when you least expect it at a World Cup, that they can get lost in the emotion, and this was history repeating.
Messi thought he was going to level things up in the 56th minute when the goal opened up in front of him but, seemingly from nowhere, Hassan Al-Tambakti, an unheralded defender for Al Shabab, slid in to make a tackle as if his life depended on it, pilfering the ball perfectly.
Al-Tambakti leapt to his face, punching the air as if he had scored, and really the tackle was as good as a goal. Messi, meanwhile, rocked on his haunches and shook his head, unable to comprehend how the moment had gone.
It would get even more extraordinary. Shortly after, Nicolas Tagliafico found himself at the back post, three yards out, seemingly ready to turn the ball in. What he hadn’t counted on was Muhammad Al Owais flying like Superman to turn his shot aside.