‘Don’t get cards’: How Poland’s strange World Cup progression played out

“They were shouting at us from the bench: ‘Don’t concede. Don’t get cards,’” Piotr Zielinski said laughing, which he could do at last do. “Strange,” the Poland midfielder called it. Somehow, they were still standing. They had lost their final group match 2-0 against Argentina on Wednesday but had survived a Lionel Messi penalty and 23 shots, including one cleared off the line in stoppage time, and progressed to the last 16 by virtue of having collected two yellow cards fewer than Mexico. Or at least that’s what they thought when the final whistle went.

As it turned out, a goal for Saudi Arabia in the fifth minute of added time, scored 25km north at the exact moment that Messi and Robert Lewandowski were embracing post-game, covering their mouths to exchange words, would mean Poland progressed on goal difference. But 2-0 down against Argentina at Stadium 974 while Mexico were leading by the same score at Lusail, the two teams tied on everything in Group C, the lifeline they had clung on to was fair play.

“For the last 10 minutes of our game we knew that yellow cards would probably decide,” Lewandowski said. “We had heard that Mexico were ‘only’ 2-0 up. We knew then: we have to believe but also play carefully and not get a yellow card again. When Saudi Arabia scored, we knew that luck was on our side.”

That Poland had got that far owed much to Wojciech Szczesny, who not only superbly saved a penalty from Messi but made eight more stops and touched the ball more than any of his teammates, three times more than Lewandowski. He had lost a bet in the process, too. He was convinced VAR was not going to give Argentina a penalty when his hand caught Messi as he reached for a deep cross. He was wrong.

“We spoke before the penalty and I bet him €100 he wasn’t going to get it and so that’s a bet I lost against Messi,” he said. “I don’t know if I am allowed to do that. I am probably going to get banned for that. I don’t care right now. And I’m not going to pay him either. He doesn’t care about €100, come on.”

“Anything I say about Szczesny will fall short,” Zielinski said. “Honestly, he did incredible things. He’s one of the best in the world and we’re very happy to have him.”

Despite that penalty save late in the first half, Argentina scored twice, in the 46th and 67th minutes. Meanwhile, goals in the 47th and 52nd minutes put Mexico ahead and left the group on a knife-edge. At times it was a bizarre sight. Rather than chasing a goal – “I was a defender first today,” Lewandowski said – Poland decided the best approach was for nothing to happen. But how do you defend for your lives without making a tackle? How do you run down the clock without running up the cards?

With a little help from Argentina perhaps? “It did go through my head to go to those who play in Italy but I thought it would be ugly to do that,” said Zielinski, a Napoli midfielder. “It was strange. We produced an ugly game and we have to improve now that we are going to face the world champions.

“We haven’t shown how well we can play. We have given the ball to our opponents and we have to change. Against France it will be different. We have to have more courage, more will to do them damage.

“We could have paid for [the approach] but we’re very happy. It’s been more than 30 years since we got through a group [in 1986].”

Asked what it was like to face Messi, Zielinski said: “Brilliant. It’s a delight to see him play – poetry. He’s a genius. There are difficult situations and he makes them look easy. Suddenly there’s a pass, a one-on-one.”

At the end Messi and Lewandowski embraced and words were exchanged. “We talked a bit, it was fun,” the Poland captain said. “I told Messi that I was playing more defensively than normal but sometimes that’s what the team needs.”

When Messi was asked what was said between the two, he took it as his cue to leave. “I had felt very angry to have missed the penalty but the team reacted and produced a very good performance,” the Argentina captain said before that. “We played very well, we were what we had been for a long time. We had lots of chances and that is good for us to prepare what’s coming up.

“Tomorrow we will start preparing for Australia. The games are all very close together but it’s the same for everyone. They played a couple of hours earlier before us, no more. This was the hottest day of the three we have played, it was very humid and we had to make an extra effort.”

Messi had just broken Diego Maradona’s record for World Cup appearances, he is now on 22. “I only just found that out. I didn’t know,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to keep getting these kinds of records. Diego would be very happy for me. He always showed me a lot of affection, he was always happy for me and the good things that happened to me.”