How to describe the indescribable?
The best match in the history of Saudi football. Or even Saudi Arabia’s greatest sporting achievement.
No statement does justice to what happened at Lusail Stadium.
The best performance ever put on by an Arab nation? Maybe.
In the moments after Saudi Arabia had stunningly beaten Argentina and Lionel Messi, even these words seemed inadequate.
On TV, tear experts struggled to be coherent. “Historical.” “Sensational.” “Impossible.”
But the performance of a lifetime could be summed up in one keyword: bravery.
Not the physical bravery it takes to fly in tackles or put your safety on the line, though there was plenty of that from the heroic Saudi players, too.
No, this was tactical and football bravery. Full of courage to devise a tactical plan and carry it out to the letter. To not fold after falling behind before Messi’s penalty. And take the game to one of the best teams in the world and favorites for the trophy, and achieve a barely credible comeback.
On Tuesday, Herve Renard’s team had that kind of bravery in spades.
How must Qatar, and to a lesser extent Iran, have looked on with envy and regret after failing to seize the day in their opening World Cup matches against Ecuador and England; matches that ended in submissive surrenders.
Saudi Arabia would never allow the same fate to befall them.
In doing so, they gave Qatar 2022 their best yet and, in many ways, kicked off a World Cup that was in danger of being consumed by distractions and controversy off the pitch.
The performance also provided the blueprint for Arab team Tunisia taking part in their own match against Denmark just over an hour later. The Águilas de Cartago put in a no less courageous performance to earn a 0-0 draw against the Euro 2020 semifinalists.
The message was clear: carpe diem.
The first half was an exercise in sticking to the master plan: playing the admittedly risky high defensive line, which at times seemed like it would eventually backfire. But time and time again Argentina’s midfielders couldn’t find the right pass and their forwards were caught offside (they would end the game with more offsides against them than they managed in all of Russia 2018).
Even as Argentina took the lead through Messi’s ice-cold penalty, Arabia’s determination and confidence in their system never wavered.
That long streak of friendlies in which the Saudis rarely fit in, and the hours in the training field perfecting their defensive formation, were paying off.
The game’s sliding doors moment came when Lautaro Martínez apparently gave Argentina a two-goal lead, but VAR intervention kept it 1-0.
Arabia needed to watch the game until the break without further damage before taking stock before the second half.
They could hardly have written the second half better.
Saudi Arabia simply wrapped up their opponents in a way they could hardly have expected, or even thought possible.
First, in the 48th minute, Saleh Al-Shehri, leading the attack solo, scored with a brilliant left-footed volley past Emi Martinez to level the game. Saudi supporters in the stadium erupted. Rarely, if ever, has a World Cup goal by an Arab nation been greeted with such loud noise.
But, incredibly, things would pick up five minutes later, and Salem Al-Dawsari’s curling shot past Martinez will go down as one of the Qatar 2022 goals.
The rest of the match was a master class in defense and stamina by the Saudi team. When Argentina managed to create chances, they found goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais in the form of a lifetime of his.
Nearly 50 minutes after Al-Dawsari’s goal and after countless tackles, clearances and last-minute saves, the referee finally called it a game.
Saeed Al-Owairan’s sensational goal against Belgium at the 1994 World Cup in the US had long been Saudi Arabia’s greatest football moment; not anymore.
Before the start of the tournament, Saudi Arabia’s second group game against Poland, difficult as it is, was seen as their best hope of picking up some points. Nobody gave them much hope against Argentina, and even Renard’s words on the eve of the match about “giving an honorable performance” hinted at damage limitation.
How wrong we were to doubt him and his players.
Having overseen Morocco’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful campaign four years ago against Spain, Portugal and Iran, he is now three points, perhaps even one, away from taking Saudi Arabia to the last 16 of an arguably just as tough group.
Having defeated mighty Argentina, can Saudi Arabia continue and surprise Poland and Mexico as well?
It would take a brave man to bet against them.