Soccer  

Saudi Arabia’s stunning upset of Argentina is quite possibly Asia’s greatest win in FIFA World Cup history

For anyone who watched the 2022 FIFA World Cup Group C opener between Argentina and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, try to remember where you were at around 2.13 p.m. AST (Arabian Standard Time) — when Salem Al-Dawsari picked out the top corner with a sublime curling effort.

Or awhile later around 3 p.m., when the final whistle blew at Lusail Stadium.

Those two moments are likely to go down as historic moments after Saudi Arabia pulled of a stunning upset of the heavily-fancied Argentina, having come from behind to beat the South Americans 2-1 and claim what is quite possibly the greatest win by an Asian team at the World Cup.

Yet, it did not initially look as though that would be the case. Instead, things were going according to the script.

Argentina were dominant from the opening whistle, duly took the lead through Lionel Messi’s 10th-minute penalty, and could easily have led by more but for three other strikes that were ruled out for offside.

With Saudi Arabia playing an extremely-high line, Argentina were regularly making their way in behind the opposition defence and looked every bit a side on course to matching Italy’s 37-match unbeaten record in international football.

When Saudi Arabia’s captain and talismanic playmaker Salman Al-Faraj has to be replaced just before halftime due to injury, it already looked as though it might be a long day for them — and memories of an opening-day 5-0 defeat to Russia from four years ago might have been flooding back.

But there is always a potential for scripts to be ripped to shreds at the World Cup. The Green Falcons were certainly on doing that.

Three minutes after the break, a swift and direct foray forward after Messi had lost possession on the halfway line saw Saleh Al-Shehri break free inside the area and find the bottom corner with an unerring left-footed finish.

The strike drew rapturous cheers from the Green Falcons faithful gathered at Lusail Stadium and, likely, all of Saudi Arabia just a few hundred kilometres away. At this stage, a draw was back on the cards and that would been a massive result as it is.

There was more to follow — and it should come as no surprise that it was Al-Dawsari, arguably Saudi Arabia’s most-talented player and the man who took over the armband from the injured Al-Faraj, who produced an individual moment of brilliance to fire his side into a lead that even they probably could not believe.

Al-Shehri and Al-Dawsari were not the only heroes. Abdullelah Al-Malki and Mohamed Kanno were indomitable in the middle of the park, Yasser Al-Shahrani held his own against Angel Di Maria and even took a heroic knee to the lower jaw that saw him replaced right at the death, while goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais — after a nervous first half — emerged as the player of the match with his heroics in the second 45.

Most of all, Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard deserves credit for masterminding a win which should go down as one of the greatest by an Asian team in World Cup history.

Of course, there was North Korea’s 1-0 upset of Italy back in 1966 — the first victory by an Asian team at the tournament ever. Saudi Arabia themselves beat Belgium in 1994, while the famous run to a fourth-place finish by South Korea in 2002 featured knockout-stage wins over Italy and Spain.

Even at the last World Cup, South Korea pulled of a stunning 2-0 triumph over Germany that eliminated the then-champions from the tournament.

Nonetheless, there was something different about this.

None of those teams were as heavily unfancied as the Saudi Arabians heading into the contest.

And none of those opposition sides boasted arguably the greatest player of all time on the hunt for a first World Cup title in his swansong on football’s biggest stage.

There was also an element of belief that emanated from the Green Falcons. It was not one of those smash-and-grab, backs-against-the-walls victories.

They fell behind but they responded, they took the game to far superiors opponents, and they claimed a deserving win.

You know what? Forget ‘arguably’.

Saudi Arabia’s win over Argentina on Nov. 22, 2022 at 3 p.m. AST is Asia’s greatest win at a World Cup.