Messi’s Argentina top group with Poles also through

Poland has waited since 1986 to make the second round of the World Cup finals, and in the final 20 minutes of this last game in Group C they had to anticipate any number of ways that Fifa processes and Fifa systems might rob them of that achievement.

There had been a penalty given against them in the first half on the basis of a Var review that appeared to be based on a set of laws hitherto undisclosed by the governing body. Then in the last stages of the game at Doha’s Stadium 974, Poland found themselves two goals down and neck-and-neck for that second place with Mexico, who were winning 2-0 against Saudi Arabia in the other Group C game across town at the Lusail.

It meant that both nations had, at that point, identical records: one win, one draw, one defeat and two goals for and against. A place in the second round, against defending champions France, would come down to which side had picked up the fewest yellow cards. That was Poland with five to Mexico’s seven, and suddenly the game was operating in lots of different dimensions. Poland could not concede, but they also had to ration their yellow cards.

It was, to put it mildly, a challenge for their coach Czesław Michniewicz, a cheerful soul. He chose to substitute Grzegorz Krychowiak after his booking as a second yellow for the midfielder – and a red – would have counted as three cards and put Poland behind Saudi on bookings. This was when a close reading of the Fifa handbook came in handy.

“The rules have been clear from the start,” Michniewicz would say later. His staff were keeping track of events at the Lusail and a tally of bookings. Even so, Michniewicz said, “my heart skipped a beat when Grzegorz was booked.”

Poland had survived a terrible penalty decision by the Dutch referee Danny Makkelie in the first half, on the advice of his Var Pol van Boekol. Wojciech Szczesny’s glove flapped across the face of Lionel Messi as the Poland goalkeeper reached for a cross, and that was enough. That febrile atmosphere surrounding decisions concerning the big stars of the World Cup is one of those fertile grounds for conspiracy theories and the more there are, one can only wonder.


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