EIGHT SECONDS short of 14 minutes in stoppage time, the referee blew his whistle. It could have been the most beautiful tune that Saudi Arabia’s tenacious wonder-men would have heard in their lives. Some of them knelt and kissed the boot-crushed grass of the Lusail Stadium. Some spread their arms to catch hold of their leaping teammates. Some sprinted to a section of the joyous crowd, furiously waving the country’s flag and hurling their jerseys.
How they found the energy to celebrate was baffling. For, they had shed every drop of sweat, stretched every sinew of muscle and expended every ounce of courage in grinding out one of the most shocking defeats in World Cup history.
Look at these scenes in the Saudia Arabia dressing room! 👏
These celebrations might go on for an hour or two… 🤣 pic.twitter.com/Gi6l4R8hta
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) November 22, 2022
Rallying from a one-goal deficit and listlessness in the first half, the Saudis had managed to upset tournament favourites Argentina 2-1.
It was a moment that would define the rest of their lives, make them immortal in footballing lore. The humble footballers who stunned Lionel Messi’s team; the miracle men who could spoil Messi’s dream of a perfect World Cup farewell; the eternal underachievers who lit up the World Cup.
It’s such shock defeats that enrich the World Cup experience — and victories like these that make watching a World Cup worthy. As enervating as it is to see a generational footballer like Messi in full bloom, it’s equally romantic to see a mid-tier team like Saudi Arabia, having lost 10 of their 13 previous games, beat a team that had remained unbeaten for 36 games.
When both sides parted for the half-time break, no one anticipated the tempest that was to blow on the pitch. Argentina were bossing Saudi Arabia: a sumptuous Messi penalty, three goals ruled offside, Saudi’s high backline pierced with unreal comfort. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, were flirting with risk-fraught tactics: negligible verve upfield, lack of stability on the middle of the pitch. The 1-0 scoreline at half-time was actually flattering for them.
The second half seemed an ordeal in waiting. But that’s how the most thrilling heists are scripted. The heroes are slung to the corner, tortured and battered, before they channel a rare strength when there is nothing else to be lost. And that’s what Saudi Arabia did.
The first of those heroes was Saleh Al-Shehri, even though he was reduced to cameos after seven months away from the sport. Everything changed in a moment of pure opportunism. Receiving a long ball from Firais Al Buraikan, he escaped Argentina’s defensive bulwark Christian Romero with the deftest of first touches, outmuscled and outsped a pair of Romero’s frantic colleagues, slid a pass through Romero’s legs, and slammed the ball past goalie Emiliano Martinez right into the corner. Firais then ran towards the corner-flag, slumped to his knees and offered a silent prayer in front of the ecstatic, and shocked, Saudi supporters.
Argentina were shaken. But many thought this was a solitary moment of lapse that happens to the best of teams, no more than a passing concern. As lively as they were in the first half, it was inevitable that they would reclaim the lead with the quality at their disposal and the attacking riches on the bench.
Little did they know that the most startling of twists was lurking in the lengthening shadows of the stadium.
Soon enough, Saudi’s loose-limbed right-footed wizard Salem Al-Dawsari burst forth from the left wing even as his teammate Nawad Al-Abid pummeled the ball powerfully onto Romero’s head. The rebound rolled onto the far side of the penalty where Dawsari sped furiously to collect the ball. His options seemed limited: Angel di Maria and Leandro Paredes were suffocating him. But with a silken 360 degree pirouette, he foxed Di Maria. Then, with a sharp inward turn into the box, he escaped two last-ditch tackles, cut across a lunging Paredes and before Rodrigo de Paul could close him down, unleashed a sweet right-footed strike past the despairing arms of Martinez.
Dawsari, in fact, had lost his balance in the follow through but kept delaying the downward plunge until he saw the ball ruffle the far corner. It was a goal of such devastating beauty that it seemed Latin American in essence.
There were other heroes, too, as the Saudis repelled wave after wave of Argentina’s forays. The goalkeeper Mohammad Al-Owais was unflappable, a one-man fort that could not be breached. On a rare instance he was beaten, defender Abduleh-al-Amiri headed the ball away from the line. Saudi Arabia was impenetrable in the dying minutes, throwing everything at Argentina, frantically and, at times, chaotically clinging to their lead. And then, the referee blew the whistle.