How to describe the indescribable?
The greatest match in Saudi’s football history. Or even Saudi’s finest sporting achievement.
Neither statement does what happened at Lusail Stadium justice.
The greatest-ever performance by an Arab nation? Perhaps.
In the moments after Saudi Arabia had quite astonishingly vanquished Argentina and Lionel Messi, even these words seemed inadequate.
On television, tearful pundits struggled to be coherent. “Historic.” “Sensational.” “Impossible.”
But the performance of a lifetime could be summed up in one key word: bravery.
Not the physical bravery that requires flying into tackles or putting your safety on the line, although there was plenty of that from the heroic Saudi players as well.
No, this was tactical, footballing bravery. Full of courage to devise a tactical plan, and carry it out to the letter. To not fold after falling behind to Messi’s penalty. And to take the game to one of the world’s best teams and favorites for the trophy, and achieve a barely credible comeback win.
On Tuesday, Herve Renard’s team had that kind of bravery in abundance.
How must Qatar, and to a lesser extent Iran, have looked on in envy and regret after not seizing the day in their opening World Cup fixtures against Ecuador and England; matches that ended in meek surrenders.
Saudi Arabia were never going to allow the same fate to befall them.
In doing so, they gave Qatar 2022 its finest moment yet, and in many ways kick-started a World Cup that was in danger of being consumed by off-the-field distractions and controversies.
The performance also provided the blueprint for fellow Arab team Tunisia to take into their own match against Denmark just over an hour later. The Carthage Eagles put on a performance no less courageous 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 masterplan: Play the admittedly risky high defensive line, which at times seemed as if it would eventually backfire. But time and again Argentina’s playmakers could not find the right pass and their forwards were caught offside (they would end the match with more offside calls against them than they managed in the whole of Russia 2018).
Even when Argentina took the lead through Messi’s ice-cool penalty, Saudi’s resolve and belief in their system never wavered.
That long run of friendly matches in which Saudi rarely conceded, and the hours on the training ground perfecting their defensive formation, were bearing fruit.
The match’s sliding doors moment came when Lautaro Martinez seemingly gave Argentina a two-goal lead, but VAR’s intervention kept it at 1-0.
Saudi needed to see the match into the break without any further damage before taking stock ahead of the second half.
They could hardly have scripted the second half better.
Saudi Arabia simply engulfed 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 on his own, scored with a brilliant left-footed volley past Emi Martinez to level the match. The Saudi supporters in the stadium erupted. Rarely, if ever, has a goal by an Arab nation at the World Cup been greeted with such noise.
But things would, incredibly, get better five minutes later, and Salem Al-Dawsari’s curled shot past Martinez will go down as one of the goals of Qatar 2022.
The rest of the match was a masterclass of defending and resilience from the Saudi team. When Argentina managed to create chances, they found goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais in the form of his life.
Almost 50 minutes after Al-Dawsari’s goal and after countless last-ditch tackles, clearances and saves, the referee finally brought the match to an end.
Saeed Al-Owairan’s sensational winner against Belgium at the 1994 World Cup in the US had long stood as Saudi’s greatest football moment; not anymore.
Before the start of the tournament, Saudi’s second group match against Poland, as difficult as it is, was seen as their best hope of nabbing some points. No one 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 gallant but ultimately unsuccessful campaign four years ago against Spain, Portugal and Iran, he now stands three points, maybe even one, away from taking Saudi into the round of 16 from a group arguably as difficult.
Having beaten mighty Argentina, can Saudi go on and shock Poland and Mexico as well?
It would take a brave man to bet against them.