Suddenly Tuesday morning, the underdogs struck back.
Through the first two days of the tournament it appeared as though the unusual timing and compressed format of the 2022 World Cup would mean that raw talent would rule the day. Qatar was hapless against Ecuador in the tournament opener, falling behind 2–0 early and never really troubling its opponents in a game thought to be their best chance at getting a World Cup win. An Iran team entering the tournament with a host of distractions looked inert in its 6–2 loss to England. Senegal, more evenly matched against the Netherlands despite missing star Sadio Mané, played the Dutch even for 80 minutes before succumbing to two late goals.
The early match Tuesday between Argentina and Saudi Arabia would not have been anyone’s guess to break this trend. Argentina entered the game on a 36-match unbeaten streak. Saudi Arabia came in as the 51st-ranked team in the world, ahead of only Ghana among teams that qualified for the World Cup. (Even Qatar was 50th.) Argentina scored first, a penalty tucked away by Lionel Messi in the tenth minute; it hadn’t lost a game that Messi scored in since 2009. Argentina was still one goal up at halftime; it hadn’t lost a World Cup match it led at the half since the 1930 World Cup final. Saudi Arabia hadn’t scored more than one goal in over a year. The last time it did so was against China which is—hot take!—not as good as Argentina at soccer.
All of which means there are an awful lot of “until nows” packed into Saudi Arabia’s 2–1 win, the biggest upset in the past four tournaments. Argentina was widely tipped to win the entire tournament. Saudi Arabia was given next to no shot to advance from a group that includes Mexico and Poland as well. So momentous is the victory that the nation has reportedly declared a public holiday Wednesday to celebrate the win, which it snatched by scoring two goals in a five-minute period just after halftime.
First, forward Saleh al-Shehri took a simple pass up the gut between two tentative Argentinian defenders to tie the game in the 48th minute. Five minutes later, midfielder Salem al-Dawsari bamboozled Argentina’s central midfielder Rodrigo De Paul with a simple cut and uncorked a rocket to the far corner as Leandro Paredes slid past him.
You don’t need to speak Arabic to understand the emotion in announcer Khalil al-Balushi’s call after that second goal.
They were two of Saudi Arabia’s three shots in the game, fine and fortunate finishes both. Saudi Arabia finished the game with less than a tenth of Argentina’s expected goals, not counting Messi’s penalty. The Kingdom’s unexpectedly high defensive line caught Argentina offsides time and time again.
The planner behind this snatch-and-grab was Saudi Arabia’s French coach Hervé Renard. Renard has the movie-star look of someone who gets introduced by having his Bad Guy Mad Libs résumé read in voiceover by whichever Marvel actor is slumming it as an elite Special Forces soldier this time: “French Foreign Legion. Six years with dangerous-sounding foreign intelligence agency. Went rogue in Eastern European capital. Responsible for dastardly plot . He’ll do anything to get the MacGuffin so he can even more dastardly plot.” In other words, Renard has the chin and the eye creases of someone who gets things done.
And he has, at the international level. Though his frequent stints as a club coach have been quick and painful, he’s been an effective mercenary as a national team coach. He won the African Cup of Nations championship with Zambia in 2012, which is about as big of an upset as it sounds. He won it again with Ivory Coast in 2015, the first coach to win it with two different teams. He took Morocco to the World Cup in 2018, where the team played far better than its results indicated. Whatever else happens to Saudi Arabia at this tournament, Renard will be in demand.
Once Saudi Arabia had the lead, it baited Argentina into lobbing cross after cross into the box. The South Americans had a surefire score headed off the line in extra time. Goalkeeper Mohammed al-Awais threw himself across his goal time and time again. He came for a high cross and obliterated his own teammate with a flying knee. He kept good Messi chances from hitting the back of his net. Saudi Arabia rode its luck to get the win, yes, but it put itself in a position to seize and hold onto that luck. Al-Awais finished the match looking like a boxer waiting for the referee to lift his hand in victory.
After Mexico and Poland played to a 0–0 draw Tuesday, Saudi Arabia unexpectedly finds itself in first place in Group C. This sort of underdog win doesn’t happen every year, but that won’t stop other World Cup teams from chasing it.