A moment of authenticity in this tournament, yet one that seemed to defy reality.
This World Cup has had its first classic shock, and maybe one of its biggest of all. An utterly stunned Argentina lost for the first time in 36 games, to an admirably adventurous Saudi Arabia, driven on by a raucous atmosphere. Manager Herve Renard pulled off another incredible feat.
The fact they came from behind to win 2-1 only emphasised their spirit and resolve, and showed how even the most problematic World Cup is still driven by human sporting qualities. That is what Qatar are trying to buy. A further irony is that is what their complicated political rivals in Saudi Arabia will now use. What a venue for their greatest-ever World Cup victory, in the host’s prize stadium, not long after the Gulf blockade was lifted.
And whatever talk of how the state will use the victory, this was the classic sporting story of footballers rising to greater levels, driven on by fans.
Saudis and Argentines were among the most enthusiastic buyers of tickets for this World Cup and ensured the tournament had its first proper football occasion, a real atmosphere. The sound as Saleh Al Shehri scored that equaliser, and then when Salem Al Dawsari won it, was something else. It was vibrant. It was deafening, but also defined and influenced the game.
You couldn’t have had a clearer case of how an atmosphere and psychology influence the game, as Argentina suffered yet another football equivalent of a nervous breakdown.
That points to how they have such a poor record in opening games, but even this was a new way to fail.
They were even given the platform of an early Lionel Messi penalty, but even that proved the perfect set-up for what was to follow.
Argentina will of course point to the nature of how many fractional calls went against them. They should instead point to themselves, and their own reaction. They can’t just look to a short build-up time. The Saudi players instead offered the example, and the inspiration for the tournament to come.
They rose to it. They rose above Messi’s opener, as a player who has been expected to fully make this World Cup his own was just left looking ashen-faced in an Argentina shirt again, almost ineffective.
It had all seemed so different. That only made it all the more incredible.
Just over four years ago, Messi had actually missed his first penalty in a World Cup, as he cut such an anxious figure.
Here he looked so calm as he just rolled the ball into the net for that early penalty and his seventh goal in the history of the competition. He wasn’t to know what the immediate future held.
That handling of Leandro Paredes brought one of the few calls that went Argentina’s way, and the passage of it clearly started to make Argentina edgy. That got worse.
It was the double edge of the Saudi’s approach, and the inherent risk that made this victory even more impressive. Testament there must go to Renard. Lionel Scaloni’s side were evidently surprised by the aggression of Saudi pressing, but it did have the effect of allowing massive opportunity any time they put the ball over that high line.
The additional offset to that was just how many times they were called offside.
It meant a 4-0 in play was only 1-0, as they had three goals disallowed.
The last of those was admittedly by a fair margin as Messi delayed his release for Lauturo Martinez, but the other two – with both of the attackers finishing – were not.
It fostered a frustration for Argentina, that grew into outright anxiety. It could be sensed in so many hacked clearances, as Saudi Arabia felt something was on.
It could be fully seen in the manner the equaliser went in.
A fairly direct Feras Al Brikan just went straight through the Argentine half and both centre-halves, Saleh Al Shehri’s strike deflecting off Cristian Romero to slide past Emiliano Martinez.
Argentina were stunned, and Saudi Arabia sensed it. So they went for it.
They caused utter panic.
It’s that distinctive passage that happens in sporting occasions when a team know they have a real opportunity and just go with it.
Fittingly, Al Dawsari’s brilliant strike flew into the top corner.
The Saudi players had all the focus that comes with full commitment. Argentina radiated the hesitation that comes with doubt.
It was best seen with one Nicolas Tagliafico run down the left. Messi had put him through, but there was just no way he was getting there before Saud Abdulhamid. The challenge was ferocious – and fair.
Scaloni had no choice but to rip it all up, making three subs. Pardes was removed, Lisandro Martinez and Enzo Fernandez finally brought on.
It didn’t change much. Saudi Arabia were too far in, too invested, Argentina had too much doubt. They by then had almost full control of the possession, but were creating little more than half chances.
It was remarkable. So many moves ended with a cross and Mohammed Alowais making another save, but with no one there to follow in.
Whether they would have actually got past the goalkeeper is another question, mind. He was exceptional, most of all with an instinctive save to keep out Tagliafico from almost point-blank range.
Saudi Arabia just had that defiance, led by their goalkeeper. It was real spirit.
It is now a real crisis for Argentina, as this was supposedly one of the easiest games of their group.
They can of course point to the abrupt preparation period. That is one reason why this result may herald a series of early surprises, in the same manner as 2002. They have also overcome similar results in the past.
For the moment, though, all of that only feeds into the doubt that could be so felt in this game.
This Saudi Arabia victory will meanwhile resonate for the ages.
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