Let us sit back for a moment and consider the magnitude of what took place on a football field in Qatar on Tuesday afternoon.
Saudi Arabia, a country with little in the way of World Cup success, beat Argentina, a nation that has won the competition twice and sits proudly among footballing royalty. If that is not a true David and Goliath story, then I do not know what is.
Up until Tuesday afternoon, Argentina had not lost a game in 36 matches — the second-longest unbeaten run in history. Argentina was also favorite to win the tournament and includes Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s greatest player. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, was an afterthought. Ranked 51st in the world, with not a single player competing in the top leagues of either Europe or South America, it was dismissed out of hand. So much so that prior to the game, Nielsen’s Gracenote gave the Saudis only an 8.7 percent chance of victory. In other words, the Kingdom’s 2-1 victory over Argentina was the greatest upset in World Cup history.
What makes the win so much sweeter is that it has achieved the impossible. It has united the Arab world. Palestinians celebrated on the streets of Gaza, and even the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, wore the Saudi Arabian flag around his shoulders. In years to come, millions of us will remember exactly where we were when Salem Al-Dawsari’s wonder goal sent shockwaves through the footballing world.
It is tempting to read too much into a single moment in time, of course, especially one related to sports, but I would like to think that this victory is somehow representative of the new Saudi Arabia. A braver, hungrier Saudi Arabia that is in the midst of a remarkable surge toward liberalization. Ever since Vision 2030 was unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016, the country has rapidly transformed before our very eyes. It is confident and progressive, tapping into its social, cultural and economic potential. Maybe that is what we saw a glimpse of yesterday afternoon.
But there are also lessons for us to learn as an industry. It is foolish, after all, to underestimate the sheer determination of the underdog. Prior to the game, the only real discussion had centered on how many goals Argentina would score and to what extent Saudi Arabia could limit the damage inflicted upon them. There was little or no talk of whether the Saudi players could create an upset, despite the camaraderie of a team made up entirely of Saudi Pro League players. As we subsequently saw, the dismissal of an opponent’s ability to surprise is foolhardy. So is the complacency of those who arrogantly believe in their own supremacy.
The whole underdog thing is important because there is a deep strength to be found in those who are considered to have little chance of winning. There is an all-consuming passion, a certain rush, a particular calling that is unbeatable. If you can channel that underdog mentality day in, day out, then that is a powerful tool for any agency. Because the seemingly unwinnable fight is what makes us feel alive. It is what we all dream of in a way — that romantic ideal of never giving up, of fighting for what we believe in, of keeping the flame alive.
Successful agencies and leaders are those who somehow manage to keep that sense of the underdog alive — who keep that flame burning, never accept the status quo, and continue to surprise. So there is a lesson for us all from Saudi Arabia’s win and from the inspirational leadership of manager Herve Renard — that the hungrier and the more passionate will prevail.
• Reda Raad is one of the key architects who started TBWA\RAAD in Dubai. He has been an active member of the Middle Eastern communications industry for over 20 years.