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Saudi Arabia shocks Argentina with a World Cup upset for the history books

Salem al-Dawsari flips as he celebrates with his teammates after scoring on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
7 min

LUSAIL, Qatar — Consuming, astounding noise, long a pillar of soccer around this globe, just took its first turn this nascent World Cup at pounding the eardrums and stoking the goose bumps. It soundtracked one of the bigger upsets in World Cup history. It stirred up in a thundering swirl of delight and disbelief. It came from next-door neighbors.

Somehow, on a Tuesday afternoon that will live long past Tuesday evening, it turned out to be the abundant fans of Saudi Arabia, many of whom reached this first World Cup in the Arab world by driving or busing, who unleashed an unforeseeable ruckus. They greeted whiplash goals by Saleh al-Shehri on 48 minutes and Salem al-Dawsari on 53 minutes that will sustain primo lodging in their memories. And from those you’re-kidding-me moments, they carried on singing and booming through all manner of Argentina threats until they exulted at a 2-1 win even they did not see coming.

“[Argentina] come here without losing any games in 36 games,” said Hervé Renard, the 54-year-old French manager of Saudi Arabia since 2019 who also managed Zambia, Angola, Ivory Coast and Morocco. “They are the South American champion [in the 2021 Copa America]. They have amazing players. But this is football, and sometimes things are completely crazy.”

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He spoke eternal truth after ethereal upturn, the upset taking its place alongside historic others such as the United States over England in 1950, North Korea over Italy in 1966, Northern Ireland over Spain in 1982, Cameroon over Argentina in 1990 and Senegal over France in 2002. Even his gritty team’s fans, like any other fans of an Argentina opponent here, might have arrived with a ticklish sort of dual allegiance for this opening match in Group C. They would have supported the homeland, of course, but also probably would have counted themselves as lucky ticket-holders to witness presumably the last of the five World Cups of Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the 35-year-old global superstar.

And from the outset, the futuristic Lusail Stadium did appear a setting with 88,012 gathered for Messi connoisseurship. Completed in April 2021, the stadium saw its first World Cup goal when Saudi Arabia suffered a penalty for what appeared some mild roughhousing in the box, and Messi, of course, took that penalty. He directed it simply and leftward into the corner for his seventh career World Cup goal since his debut as a teenager in 2006 — all of those goals in group play — and everything looked normal at 1-0 to Argentina.

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Everything looked normal right after that, too, as one of the favorites to win the whole thing looked just about as it should against one of the distant outsiders on the wagering sheets. In a weird sequence from 22 minutes to 34 minutes, Argentina appeared to score three goals, two by Messi, all on easy penetrations of Saudi Arabia’s high defensive line that left Argentines pretty much alone with goalkeeper Mohammed al-Owais.

In a shocking upset victory, Saudi Arabia beat heavily favored Argentina 2-1 in a Nov. 22 group stage game at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. (Video: The Washington Post)

Well, all three got ruled offside, two with immediate flags raised, one after a VAR review. The score remained 1-0 into halftime.

“By inches, some of the decisions,” went the truth spoken by Lionel Scaloni, the former Argentina player who has managed Argentina since 2018.

“At that time, if we concede the second goal,” Renard said, “I think the match was finished.”

If anything, there was an ease about the Argentines that perhaps served them poorly. The second half brought them things they did not expect and stammered to counter. “Sometimes your opponent is not at his best motivation,” Renard said. “This is normal … Can you imagine Lionel Messi playing against Saudi Arabia and you tell him, ‘We have to start well,’ this is not like he was playing Brazil. This [difference] is normal.” As Argentina “owned the first half,” as Scaloni put it, the offsides made the game start to feel “strange,” where “a single goal could turn things around, and that’s how things developed.”

The game got strange; a single goal turned it around, and that’s how things developed.

Saudi World Cup win over Argentina unites divided Mideast in celebration

On 48 minutes, after the Saudis won a ball at midfield, Shehri took a long pass from Abdulellah al-Malki just atop the box, bypassed defender Cristian Romero and left-footed a pretty thing past goalkeeper Emi Martinez into the far right corner to level the match. That sent the stadium from good noise to untold noise, the kind that might have greeted some dazzling Messi goal but now greeted something else altogether.

Four minutes later, with the Argentina defense on the wobble, the Saudis suddenly found themselves populating a crowded box with the ball taking a little tour around. When Dawsari took it, sidestepped a challenge and drilled a shot into the far right corner, glancing off the desperate palm of Martinez, things got really rambunctious.

From there, Owais and Saudi Arabia hung on with plenty of attacks at them but only two that seemed flashing red. On one at 62 minutes, Owais saved a point-blank bid from Nicolás Tagliafico off Lisandro Martínez’s cross into the box. On the other two minutes into stoppage time, and as celebration neared, Owais went out to bat away some trouble and wound up leaving it open for Julian Alvarez to pound it in. Abdulelah al-Amri headed that off the line, and reserved his own place in future lore.

“I was really aware of every minute in this game,” Owais said, “and I’m really happy.” Also: “Honestly, I felt we were good especially during the last moments …”

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In the closing strains, Messi tried often but didn’t menace much. The whole meaning of his World Cup had changed, just as the whole meaning of the whole World Cup had changed for the fans from next door. The final whistle sounded, ending 14 minutes of added time bloated partly because of a long injury delay. Saudi players looked rapturous as they tumbled out to the field. Argentines in the stands held their heads in their hands. The Saudi fan noise mushroomed again, and anyone videotaping them from close by might have felt some nonalcoholic beer drizzle down onto the cheeks.

Video shows Saudi Arabia fans on Nov. 22 celebrating at the 2022 World Cup match against Argentina in Doha, Qatar, which ended in a 2-1 win for Saudi Arabia. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I feel light,” Renard began his remarks.

“ … un batacazo histórico en Qatar …,” went the headline in Clarin, Argentina’s largest newspaper, seeing a historic bump.

“It’s difficult to digest,” Scaloni said. “In five minutes, they scored two goals. I think they were two out of two in shots on goal. But we will have to bounce back from defeat for the next two matches [against Mexico and Poland],” hoping to emulate Spain 2010, a champion that lost its opener. “And we don’t have to do more than that. It’s a sad day, but …”

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“It’s a special thing,” Renard said, about what he told his players. “When you are a small team, when you are a neighbor of Qatar, with a lot of fans in the stadium like all the Saudi people who came today, you need to be thinking about them. You need to think about the 35 million Saudi people at home, and I told [the players] today the life will stop [in Saudi Arabia], because they are looking for something different.”

They and the world got something almost too different to believe.

This story has been updated.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.