Historic Saudi Arabian victory over Argentina puts football centre stage
In a World Cup that had hitherto been dominated by other issues just since it all started on Sunday – Iranian protests, beer, armbands and much more besides – Saudi Arabia brought the focus back on football in spectacular fashion on Tuesday.
In what is probably the biggest shock in the tournament this century and more besides, the Green Falcons defeated mighty Argentina 2-1.
It is hard to know where to start.
"This is the biggest World Cup shock since debutants Senegal defeated defending champions France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup and it may even outrank that"
When Lionel Messi gave the South Americans an early lead from the spot, from what was a soft penalty decision, almost all the 80,000 fans at the Lusail Stadium and many more millions worldwide, sat back and expected a comfortable win.
They were almost correct as Argentina had three goals in the first half ruled out for offside. Yet as each strike was ruled out, the two-time champions grew increasingly frustrated and had just a one goal lead at the break.
Early in the second half, they started to panic. First Saleh Al-Shehri equalised after 48 minutes and just five minutes later, Salem Al-Dawsari scored a beautiful second.
Argentina huffed and puffed but struggled to create clear chances against a team that gave everything and was rewarded with an unforgettable victory and amazing scenes at the final whistle.
And it really will never be forgotten. This is the biggest World Cup shock since debutants Senegal defeated defending champions France in the opening game of the 2002 World Cup and it may even outrank that.
It is certainly the best result involving an Arab team since Algeria sensationally defeated the mighty West Germany 2-1 at the 1982 tournament. It is certainly the best result that Saudi Arabia, now in their sixth appearance, has ever had at the tournament.
The team defeated Morocco and Belgium on their way to the second round in 1994, by far their best performance to date on the global stage.
The hero back then was Saeed Al-Owairan who scored one of the most famous World Cup goals, running past the entire Belgium defence to slot home. His name is enshrined in football history and the same can be said of Al-Dawsari.
The Al-Hilal winger has long been the best player in Saudi Arabia but he will now have a global reputation for decades to come and his name will forever make Argentine fans wince.
Pride of the Arab World and Asia
It was not only a deserved win against a team that many had tipped as potential champions but it has restored some lost pride to football in both the Arab world and across Asia too.
Hosts Qatar froze against Ecuador in the opening game and meekly fell to a 2-0 defeat against a team who are, on paper, the weakest in their group. Then the following day, Iran was too passive and reactive against England and lost 6-2. Neither were genuine contests.
That would have been acceptable for Saudi Arabia, just to remain competitive, but they were much more than that. They did not sit back but came forward and denied Argentina the time and space to play their natural game.
It was risky and left spaces behind the defence for the likes of Messi and while Argentina almost took advantage a number of times in the first half, they could not extend their lead and they were made to pay.
Saudi Arabia still did not just defend but was aggressive all the way until the end when the team, the fans and the nation celebrated one of the biggest shocks in football.
Saudi Arabia can also serve as an inspiration to others. The strong teams at this World Cup may not be quite as strong as they think and they are sure to be happier when facing timid opponents who try and grind out a 0-0 draw than when they face aggressive and ambitious teams.
So out came Tunisia just an hour after the Saudi celebrations started. The Carthage Eagles were seen as a defensive-minded team and there were not too many hopes that they could get out of a group containing defending champions France, Australia and their first opponents, Denmark, the team that reached the last four of the 2020 European Championships.
Yet the North Africans came out with a 0-0 draw and deserved it. They gave Denmark a really good game and will come out of the game greatly encouraged. Next comes a winnable game against a limited Australian team and if Tunisia can take three points against the Socceroos then they will be in a very good position when it comes to the final clash against France, who, if they win both their games would already be through and be resting players.
And that is just one of the consequences of the legendary Saudi Arabian win. It offers immortality for the players, it brings inspiration for other underdogs and it has dragged football back to the centre stage at the 2022 World Cup.
John Duerden has covered Asian sports for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, and the New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden