Many expected the South American team, ranked third in the world, undefeated for three years, and one of the favorites to win the tournament, to outperform their opponent, who is ranked 48 below him in the world rankings.
All the pre-match chatter focused on Messi, one of the greatest players ever playing in what is likely to be his last World Cup. The Argentina captain scored an early penalty to put his team ahead, but second-half goals from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dosari turned the game on its head.
Thousands of Saudi fans inside Lusail Stadium could not believe what they were watching as they celebrated their unexpected victory.
Such a return did not seem possible yet for most of the match. Argentina took control of the match after taking the lead, but everything Saudi manager Hervé Renard said in the first half worked. His team came out with a new belief and stood in step with the Argentina World Team.
Al Dossary’s stunning distance-winner – and subsequent acrobatic celebration – would become one of the moments in this or any World Cup and, no doubt in time, a ‘I was there’ moment for the fans.
As the match drew near, the fans cheered every tackle and save as if they were goals, and when the match was actually over, Saudi Arabia fans reacted like crazy.
Both groups of players sank to their knees, in disbelief and exhaustion. Messi, who had many come to watch the game, appeared distraught as he walked out with the Saudi fans sarcastically chanting his name.
According to sports data group Gracenote, a Nielsen company, Tuesday’s result was the biggest upset in the competition’s history.
“The most surprising World Cup win ever according to Gracenote was USA beating England in 1950 with a 9.5% chance of winning for the American team, but Saudi Arabia’s chance of winning today is estimated at 8.7%, so they’re in first place, he said in a statement.
As much as this was a historic win for Saudi Arabia, it was a humiliating defeat for Argentina, who capitulated on the biggest stage.
The Saudi players smiled and laughed with reporters as they left the stadium, in stark contrast to the Argentinian team who walked with their heads down on the team bus. Messi was one of the few who stopped and talked to reporters and even stopped to take pictures.
There was also more good news for Saudi fans who believe in a twist of fate.
The last three teams to beat Argentina at the World Cup have either won the competition – Germany and France in 2014 and 2018 respectively – or reached the final – Croatia 2018.
“I feel so proud of my team. This is one of the craziest games I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” cheerleader Yazid Al Dakhil told CNN. “Beating against Argentina, one of the best teams in the world, is like a dream.
“It’s one thing to play in the World Cup, it’s another to beat Argentina, it’s a different world.”
Argentina hopes to recover against Mexico in their next group match on Saturday, while Saudi Arabia faces Poland.
In the second game of the day, Christian Eriksen returned to major international football as Denmark began their World Cup campaign with a 0-0 draw with Tunisia in Group D.
The Manchester United midfielder suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the pitch at the European Championships last June and his return to international football is nothing short of a miracle.
Tunisia, which was supported by tens of thousands of fans, maintained an impressive point. Denmark improved in the second half and had a goal ruled out for offside before substitute Andreas Cornelius hit the post.
The Danes also had their application rejected at the last minute with a penalty kick.
Another scoreless game followed on Tuesday, but it was not without drama.
Polish star Robert Lewandowski saved a penalty as his team drew 0-0 with Mexico.
The striker was brought down by Hector Moreno in the second half, but was denied his first World Cup goal as Guillermo Ochoa made a superb penalty save.
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