LUSAIL, Qatar — For a competition usually won by a global heavyweight, the World Championship is still the place for shocks. But even in a tournament that can throw up a surprise or two, Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win over Argentina on Tuesday stunned the world.
The result at the Lusail Stadium was so unexpected that it immediately sparked debate as to whether it was the biggest upset of the World Cup ever. Cameroon, who beat holders Argentina in 1990, or Senegal, who defeated reigning champions France in 2002, could say something in time, but Herve Renard’s side are now the talk of the town.
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“We made history for Saudi football and it will always be that way,” said Renard. “If you come to the World Cup, you have to believe in yourself. Anything can happen in football.”
Lionel Messi’s reaction was one of shock – he said his Argentina side were ‘dead’ after Tuesday’s result – and respect for the underdogs who beat one of the likely favorites to win it all.
“We knew that Saudi Arabia is a team with good players, that they move and push the ball well [defensive] line lot. We’ve been working on it, but we’ve rushed it a bit. We need to get back to the basics of who we are. We have to think about what’s next.”
“I’m delighted with the result we achieved against this very traditional team,” said Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais. “We have prepared. We were 100% ready and we hope to get better results in the future. I felt like we were particularly good in the last few minutes because we got our three points.”
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Sources say Saudi Arabia are attributing part of their success to their preparation after securing what they believe to be the best training ground in Qatar at Sealine Beach. The facility, about an hour’s drive south of Doha, was secured more than three years ago, well before the other qualifiers began their scramble for hotels and pitches. As a squad drawn exclusively from their domestic league, they also played four warm-up games last month before kicking off their World Cup. In contrast, Argentina, who still had players participating in domestic matches across Europe as of November 13, only managed one game against UAE.
Saudi Arabia, ranked at No. 51 in the world, may not have expected much from their opening game against one of the pre-tournament favourites, but stats suggest they had every reason to secure a spot before arriving in Qatar to be considered in the knockout stages .
It’s not uncommon for teams to qualify for the last 16 after finishing third or fourth in their groups. At the last World Cup in Russia, Denmark, Sweden and Japan all made progress despite being seeded outside the top two, while five of the top eight seeds failed to win their groups.
Owners fare even worse. The World Cup has not been held since 1962, and in the last 14 tournaments the reigning champions have reached the semi-finals of the next edition only twice. France traveled to Qatar as the defending champions, knowing full well that four of the last five champions in the groups were eliminated.
In 2010, New Zealand pulled off one of the biggest World Cup shocks when they drew 1-1 with champions Italy, who finished bottom of their group. Similar to Saudi Arabia, Ricki Herbert, who coached the Kiwis at the tournament, told ESPN that the key to a result against one of world football’s heavyweights is preparation.
“We looked at the potential areas that we felt we could capitalize on and maximize the strengths that we could offer on the night,” he says. “Confidence, belief, courage and discipline were some of the key elements. We wanted to start the game well and make sure that we make it difficult for the Italian team to settle into a comfortable position. We didn’t want to give them the opportunity to play the game strongly to dictate.
“It was certainly an outstanding performance by the team for the full 90 minutes and a result that made New Zealand a household name in the footballing world. For me personally it was a very proud moment.”
Aliou Cisse, who played for Senegal in South Korea’s opener against France in 2002 and now manages his country in Qatar, says part of the strategy has to be accepting that you can’t play teams filled with some of them are the best players in the world.
“You have to defend well and be good with the ball when you get it,” he said ahead of his side’s defeat by the Netherlands on Monday. “But you have to defend yourself when you have to defend yourself.”
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Saudi Arabia certainly did that against Argentina and showed why they kept six clean sheets in qualifying and topped a group with Japan and Australia despite only scoring 12 goals in 10 games. Renard said after the win over Argentina he would only give his players “20 minutes” to celebrate, although some got a head start by playing music through portable speakers as they came grinning through the mixed zone.
“A good celebration for 20 minutes and that’s it,” said Renard. “We still have two or more games left. We have to think about looking ahead because we have two very difficult games left.” [against Poland and Mexico].”
Saudi fans have traveled by the thousands across the border to Qatar hoping to see their team game, or better yet, their performance in 1994 when they reached the last 16, and if they get there they will now have their chances against anyone calculate . King Salman even declared Wednesday a public holiday in Saudi Arabia, a royal order recommended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the country to celebrate.
In 2018, Russia defeated Spain in the second round despite sitting 60 places below them in the world rankings. It’s still the biggest upset in the knockout rounds since FIFA introduced a ranking system, a reminder that anything can happen at a World Cup. Just ask Argentina.
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