Argentina escaped a humiliating first-round exit from the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday, stunning Nigeria, 2-1, with a goal by defender Marcos Rojo in the 86th minute.
Lionel Messi, the Argentine star who was counted on to save his nation’s pride, delivered an early goal and seemingly willed his team to victory in the second half.
The result, combined with Iceland’s 2-0 loss to Croatia in Rostov, allowed Argentina to scrape into the round of 16 after starting the day in last place in their four-team group. Nigeria nearly spoiled the night, however, when Victor Moses answered Messi’s goal with a penalty kick in the second half. Argentina defender Javier Mascherano had surrendered it by pulling down a Nigerian forward on a free kick.
But Rojo saved the day, sending the capacity crowd — which included the World Cup legend Diego Maradona — into a spasm of singing, shirt-waving, foot-stomping hysterics.
“We needed it,” Rojo said after the celebration. “Now the Cup starts for us. I had told the boys I was going to score a goal.”
Argentina’s work is not done: It will face France, a World Cup favorite that won its group, in the round of 16 on Saturday in Kazan. Croatia will play Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday.
The emotion of Argentina’s tense evening was apparent as the game crept toward the final whistle: Fans burst into tears when Rojo scored, and his teammate Angel Di Maria did the same after the final whistle.
The loss was a crushing defeat for Nigeria, which was five minutes from becoming the first African team into the knockout round.
“We did everything possible, but it just wasn’t to be,” Nigeria’s captain, John Obi Mikel, said.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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