The first shock result of the 2022 FIFA World Cup occurred on Tuesday at the Lusail Iconic Stadium as tournament favorites Argentina – who had Lionel Messi amongst their ranks – succumbed to a 2-1 come-from-behind defeat at the hands of an unfancied Saudi Arabia side in their Group C opener.
Prior to Tuesday’s match, Argentina were on a hot streak of form, going 36 matches undefeated under head coach Lionel Scaloni that included their triumph in the 2021 Copa America. They also boast a star-studded squad in Qatar – apart from the aforementioned Messi, they also have Inter Milan star Lautaro Martinez, Juventus’ Angel Di Maria, and Manchester City youngster Julian Alvarez amongst their ranks.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, had only won three games throughout their five participations in the World Cup – wins against Morocco and Belgium back in 1994 and a 2-1 win over Egypt in 2018. They were also one of the only two nations in this year’s World Cup whose squad consist of solely domestic-based players, with all 26 of their players plying their trade in the Saudi Pro League – albeit with some being players already established within Asian football such as Al-Hilal duo Salem Al-Dawsari and Abdullah Otayf as well as Al-Shabab’s Nawaf Al-Abed.
At first things went according to the script – favorites Argentina managed to overwhelm their opponents throughout the first ten minutes of the game, with La Albiceleste being awarded a penalty in the 10th minute after Leandro Paredes was fouled in the box.
Messi, in what could possibly be his final World Cup, scored the ensuing penalty perfectly to give Argentina the lead.
Then, slowly but surely, Lady Luck began to turn her back against Argentina. La Albiceleste could’ve gone 4-0 up at the end of the first half but they had three goals being ruled out for offside – Messi being denied his brace in the 22nd minute before Martinez had his goals chalked off in the 28th and 34th minute.
The Saudis had defended well after conceding the opener and applied an excellent high-line, forming a water-tight barrier complimented by an offside trap like no other.
And, once the referee started the second half, the Green Falcons seized their chance.
Al-Hilal striker Saleh Al-Shehri slammed home into the bottom corner in the 48th minute before Al-Dawsari – a man instrumental in Al-Hilal’s two AFC Champions League titles in the past three years – managed to give Saudi Arabia the lead in the 53rd minute with a powerful shot that went beyond Emilio Martinez and into the top corner.
Going behind in such a shocking manner sent Argentina into a frenzy and seeing that La Albiceleste are throwing whatever they could in an effort to chase the game, Saudi Arabia decided that it was time to sit back and defend their lead.
And it was an excellent teamwork between goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais and defender Abdulelah Al-Amri who managed to frustrate Argentina to no end. Both Al-Owais and Al-Amri were fierce rivals in club level – Al-Owais being the custodian for Al-Hilal and Al-Amri being a defender for Al-Nassr – but as teammates in the national team these two were unstoppable.
Al-Owais performed a number of excellent saves throughout the first half, plucking balls out of the air as if they were nothing, while Al-Amri did a superb job covering for his goalkeeper with his blocks.
Eight minutes of injury time were added on and 14 were played, but Argentina simply could not find their way past the Saudis’ defense.
And once the referee blew for full-time, the entire Saudi Arabia camp was sent into a state of delirium and euphoria. Herve Renard’s men had done it – they became the first non-European team to have beaten Argentina in the World Cup since Roger Milla’s Cameroon in 1990.
The odds were well-stacked against Saudi Arabia – Gracenote only gave them an 8.7% chance of beating Argentina – but the Green Falcons had did it. They have pulled off one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.
For Argentina, their loss in 1990 led to a run that saw them reach that year’s World Cup final. Spain also managed to win the 2010 World Cup after dropping their first group stage game of the tournament to Switzerland. There’s still time for Messi and co to salvage their tournament.
As for Saudi Arabia, this stunning victory relived memories of 1994, where they reached the round of 16 of that year’s World Cup. The fact that the last three teams who beat Argentina in the World Cup would end up performing well in the rest of the tournament bodes well to the Green Falcons, with Germany (2014) and France (2018) going on to win the World Cup and Croatia (2018) reaching the final.
Group C’s other match on Tuesday saw Mexico and Poland playing out a 0-0 draw at the Stadium 974 with El Tri‘s goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa once again performing well for his team, denying a Robert Lewandowski penalty in the 58th minute. The Poles will become the Saudis’ next opponents in November 26th – and the Green Falcons faithful would hope for more of the same as they seek to nullify Lewandowski and keep their knockout chances alive.