Close your eyes and imagine a football match where an outsider, say a team ranked outside the world’s top 50, defeats one of the most-fancied sides, say a team ranked in the top three. How does it play out for you? Perhaps a gritty defensive effort over 90 (plus a few) minutes. A collective performance when the final output is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Maybe a set-piece goal that had been drilled down hard in the training grounds. The proverbial bus getting parked.
On Tuesday at the Lusail Stadium in Qatar at the 2022 Fifa World Cup, Saudi Arabia – ranked 51 in the world – defeated Lionel Messi’s Argentina – ranked No 3 and on a 36-match unbeaten run. And it didn’t quite follow the template you’d associate with such a result.
In football, you often hear the phrase smash-and-grab used to describe upsets... to describe matches where the win was stolen from a better-performing and/or higher-quality side. This was no smash-and-grab from Saudi Arabia. This was a win built on two well-taken goals (one of them worthy of the grandest stages), a first-half that had a surprise factor built in (a theme through the afternoon), and overall, a thoroughly well-drilled collective physical effort.
It wasn’t just an upset. It was three points for Saudi Arabia, thoroughly worthy of the winner.
The first half saw Argentina put the ball in the back of the net four times but score only one goal. Messi already went close at the start of the match from a flowing move as he looked to be in good touch and the goal eventually came from a surprise technology intervention.
When the Argentine captain was getting ready to take a free kick, the referee was called over to the monitor and a foul had been detected from a few seconds earlier. Messi made no mistake from the spot and when he celebrated, Argentina looked set for a stroll in the park.
And that is exactly why they’d get punished. Saudi Arabia’s physical intensity rarely went down on the night while Argentina struggled get out of third gear after that.
With the tournament using semi-automated technology, Argentina were on the wrong side of the margins. Lautaro Martinez’s body parts were found in violation of the high line that Saudi Arabia were holding. While at that moment it felt mildly amusing that offside was outscoring both sides, as the half (and match) went on, the Asian team’s grand plan could be seen coming together. They were not here to sit back and soak up the pressure, they had a ploy to catch La Albiceleste by surprise.
Herve Renard, the French coach of Saudi Arabia who masterminded the win, would later say he was unhappy at half time.
“During half-time I wasn’t happy because the pressure wasn’t good enough, the determination wasn’t good enough and when you come to the World Cup, you need to give everything. We can’t play as we did in the first half,” he said after the match.
But if that plan in the first half came as a surprise to Argentina, the big twist was to come at the start of the second half. The ball was taken off Messi in the middle of the pitch in the 48th minute. Couple of passes later, Saleh Al-Shehri was through on goal down the left channel and unleashed a low shot past Emi Martinez. 1-1... but surely not?
If you thought Argentina were going to be jolted into action, as it often happens in matches like these, the surprise next move once again came from Saudi Arabia. Saud Abdulhamid stormed down the right flank. The ball fell off a deflection to Nawaf Al Abid, who took a shot with his left foot that was actually destined for the top corner before it was headed away.
The No 10 then took over. For Saudi Arabia. Salem Al-Dawsari brought the ball down while he was moving away from goal, then quickly turned 180 degrees, and unleashed a right-footed shot that will be replayed over and over in the years and decades to come when iconic World Cup goals are discussed.
The Saudi Arabia captain wheeled away in celebration as his side had turned things around in five minutes of mayhem.
There was an Opta stat pre-match that said Argentina became the first team to name four players aged 34+ in the starting lineup of a Fifa World Cup match. “Experience,” they added at the end for their signature one-word sign off. But the performance, as the match went on, was symptomatic of a side that got leggier. Even when Saudi Arabia sat back and invited pressure from Argentina, naturally, the South Americans did not threaten as often as they could or should.
The latter stages of the match saw Argentina ring in the changes, but repeatedly looking to Messi for inspiration where none was forthcoming. Saudi Arabia kept things compact. The magician of many Houdini Acts in his career, Messi struggled to unlock the defence and at one point even resorted to bringing out the rarely seen header of his for a shot on target.
Except for a brilliant clearance off the line late on, the Asians’ defence held strong enough against a rather ponderous Argentina attack. While the South American champions were left ruing their missed chances in the first half, the Saudi Arabians were more efficient, with three shots on goal, two on target and scoring from both.
Indeed, towards the very end of the match, it even seemed like a third Saudi Arabia goal was more likely than a second for Argentina.
“I think this is what football is about, sport is about,” Portugal legend Luis Figo said during Sports18’s post-match show. “In the beginning, nobody could say that this result would happen. But watching the game, it was not a surprise at all. I think we have to congratulate Saudi Arabia for the excellent work. All the players were very committed with the idea of the coach. They were very physical and surprised me that they could hold the game at this level. I am really surprised and just want to congratulate the spirit.”
The surprise winners on the day, for sure. Who saw that coming, after all? But Saudi Arabia were deserving winners too and that the performance they put in resulted in a win, wasn’t a surprise.
As Renard said, “This is football, sometimes totally crazy things can happen.”