Saudi Arabia defies reality to beat Argentina in a huge World Cup shock
A moment of authenticity in this tournament, but one that seemed to defy reality.
This World Cup has had its first classic shock, and perhaps one of its biggest of all. A stunned Argentina lost for the first time in 36 games against an admirably adventurous Saudi Arabia, driven on by a raucous atmosphere. Manager Herve Renard managed another incredible feat.
The fact that they came from behind to win 2-1 only underlined their spirit and determination, showing how even the most problematic World Cup is still driven by human sportsmanship. That is what Qatar is trying to buy. A further irony is that it is what their complicated political rivals in Saudi Arabia will now use. What a venue for their biggest ever World Cup win, at the host’s prize stadium, not long after the Gulf blockade was lifted.
And yet, however the state wants to use this, this was the classic sports story of footballers rising to higher levels, driven on by the fans.
Saudi Arabians and Argentinians were among the most enthusiastic buyers of tickets for this World Cup and ensured that the tournament had its first proper footballing occasion, a real atmosphere. The sound when Saleh Alshehri scored that equaliser, and when Salem Aldawsari won it, was something else. It was alive. It was deafening, but also defined and influenced the game.
You couldn’t have had a clearer example of how atmosphere and psychology affects the game, as Argentina suffered another soccer equivalent of a nervous breakdown.
It points to how they have such a poor record in opening games, but even this was a new way to fail.
They were even given the platform for an early Lionel Messi penalty, but even that proved to be the perfect set-up for what was to follow.
Argentina will of course point to the nature of how many partial calls went against them. They should instead point to themselves, and their own reaction. They can’t just look to a short build-up time. The Saudi players instead offered the example, and the inspiration for the tournament to come.
They rose to it. They rose above Messi’s opener, as a player who has been expected to make this World Cup his own was simply left in an Argentina shirt again, almost ineffective.
It all seemed so different. That just made it all the more incredible.
Just over four years ago, Messi had actually missed his first penalty in a World Cup, when he cut such an anxious figure.
Here he looked so calm as he just rolled the ball into the net for the early penalty and his seventh goal in the competition’s history. He wasn’t supposed to know what the immediate future would bring.
This handling of Leandro Paredes brought one of the few conversations that went Argentina’s way, and the passage of it was clearly starting to irritate Argentina. It got worse.
It was the double edge of Saudi’s approach, and the inherent risk, that made this victory all the more impressive. Will there must go to Renard. Scaloni’s side were clearly surprised by the aggression of Saudi Arabia’s pressing, but it had the effect of allowing huge opportunities every time they put the ball over the high line.
The added offset to that was just how many times they were called offside.
It meant that 4-0 in play was only 1-0 as they had three goals disallowed.
The last of them was admittedly by a good margin when Messi delayed the release for Lauturo Martinez, but the other two – with both strikers on target – were not.
It led to a frustration for Argentina, which grew into outright anxiety. It could be sensed in so many hacked clearances, as Saudi Arabia felt something was up.
It could be seen fully in the way the equalizer went in.
A fairly direct Feras Albrikan went straight through the Argentine half and both centre-backs, Saleh Al-Shehri’s strike deflected off Cristian Romero to slide past Emiliano Martinez.
Argentina was stunned, and Saudi Arabia sensed it. So they went for it.
They created total panic.
It’s the characteristic passage that happens in sporting occasions when a team knows they have a real opportunity and just go with it.
Fittingly, Salem Aldawsari’s brilliant strike flew into the top corner.
The Saudi players had all the focus that comes with full commitment. Argentina exuded the hesitation that comes with doubt.
It was best seen with a Nicolas Tagliafico running down the left. Messi had put him through, but there was just no way he was getting there before Saud Abdulhamid. The challenge was fierce – and fair.
Scaloni had no choice but to tear it all up and make three subs. Pardes was removed, Lisandro Martinez and Enzo Fernandez eventually came on.
It didn’t change much. Saudi Arabia was too far in, too invested, Argentina had too many doubts. They then had almost full control of possession, but created little more than half-chances.
It was remarkable. So many moves ended with a cross and Mohammed Alowais made another save, but with no one there to follow.
Whether they would actually have gotten past the keeper is another question. He was exceptional, most of all with an instinctive save to keep out Tagliafico from an almost pointless area.
Saudi Arabia had just that defiance, led by their goalkeeper. It was real spirit.
It is now a real crisis for Argentina, as this was arguably one of the easiest games in their group.
They can of course refer to the abrupt preparation period. There is a reason why this result could herald a series of early surprises, in the same way as in 2002. They have also overcome similar results in the past.
But at the moment, all of this only adds to the doubt that can be felt so much in this game.
This Saudi Arabia victory, meanwhile, will reverberate for the ages.