Saudi Arabia sent the Arab world into a frenzy with a stunning comeback victory over tournament contenders Argentina at the FIFA World Cup Qatar at the imposing Lusail Stadium Tuesday.
Superstar Lionel Messi and the thousands of Argentina fans were left shell- shocked as second-half goals from Saleh al-Shehri and Salem al-Dawsari helped Saudi to a 2-1 win in their Group C match in front of a record 88,012-record audience.
It was a brave and brilliant performance from Saudi – ranked 51 in the world to Argentina’s third – as they silenced critics who have questioned the football culture in the Middle East. The Green Falcon’s victory Tuesday will rank as one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history along with England's loss to the United States in 1950 and West Germany losing to Algeria in 1982.
According to an analysis by Nielsen Gracenote, Saudi stood just 8.7% of registering a victory against two-time champions Argentina. But Tuesday, they ripped the predictions to pieces with a heroic second half show that kept their chance of reaching the last 16 for the first time since 1994 World Cup.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Salman declared a public holiday in Saudi Arabia today to mark the achievement, a feather in the cap of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who recommended the royal order, the state media said.
Messi, playing his fifth and most likely last World Cup, stroked home an early penalty to give Argentina the lead in the 10th minute. But he was kept at bay by Saudi defenders for the rest of the half.
Saudi then remerged with attacking intent in the second half as al-Shehri equalised in the 48th minute before al-Dawsari’s rocket gave them an unimaginable lead. Unlike Argentina's squad, which boasts players from top leagues in the world, the Saudi side is made up entirely of domestic players.
Tuesday, Saudi XI had nine players from Al Hilal, with some lion-hearted performances from goalkeeper Mohamed al-Owais and Hassan al-Tambakti.
Saudi's coach Herve Renard said the "stars were aligned" for his team. "We made history for football," he added. "It will stay forever, this is most important. But we also have to think about looking forward. We still have two difficult games before us."
Goal-scorer al-Shehri said the team had never doubted they could topple the two-time champions. "We don't care about the other team, if you believe in yourself you can achieve anything," he said.
Messi, who in Qatar is gunning for his only trophy missing from his illustrious career, called the result a "heavy blow" to his team. The 2021 Copa America champions Argentina had come into the match on a 36-match unbeaten streak. "It's a very heavy blow, a defeat that hurts, but we must continue to have confidence in ourselves," said Messi. "This group is not going to give up. We will try to beat Mexico."
Argentina coach Lucas Scaloni insisted his team had not taken their opponents lightly. "What comes ahead is to rise up, to face Mexico," he said.
"They will be tough, as everyone is at the World Cup. Now we need to win two games to move on. Of course this is difficult, but regardless of the result today, we would anyway try to win all the games."
Later, Poland played out a goalless draw with Mexico in the other Group C match, with Robert Lewandowski missing a second-half penalty. The Barcelona striker was denied a maiden World Cup goal when his 58th-minute spot-kick was saved by veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
Meanwhile, Olivier Giroud became France's joint all-time top scorer when his double helped the holders start the defence of their World Cup title in style with a 4-1 comeback Group D win against Australia Tuesday.
Giroud found the net before and after the break to take his tally to 51 goals, matching Thierry Henry's mark, either side of a Kylian Mbappe goal after Adrien Rabiot had levelled following Craig Goodwin's shock early opener.
Les Bleus are the first defending champions to win their opening match since Brazil in 2006, which has already put them in good position to advance from the group phase, something Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018 failed to do.
Denmark drew 0-0 with Tunisia in the other match in Group D, with talisman Christian Eriksen appearing in his first match in a major tournament since suffering a cardiac arrest during the European Championship last year.
Saudi Arabia's midfielder #10 Salem Al-Dawsari (2R) celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail. AFP