‘Speechless’: Saudis jubilant, in disbelief after shock World Cup win over Argentina

Fans in Qatar and back home erupt in joy, with King Salman announcing public holiday in celebration of 2-1 win over Messi’s squad, one of the biggest upsets in tournament history

Fans of Saudi Arabia celebrate their team's 2-1 victory over Argentina in a World Cup group C soccer match, outside the Lusail Stadium in Lusail Qatar, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Fans of Saudi Arabia celebrate their team's 2-1 victory over Argentina in a World Cup group C soccer match, outside the Lusail Stadium in Lusail Qatar, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Saudi Arabia fans at the soccer World Cup were in disbelief after their team shocked Argentina on Tuesday, setting off jubilant scenes in Qatar and in the Saudi capital.

After one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history, fans flooded the streets outside Lusail Stadium waving green and white Saudi flags. They then entered a nearby subway station chanting, singing — and even hugging Argentina fans.

Many were simply incredulous after the 2-1 comeback victory over Argentina, which won the World Cup twice in 1978 and 1986. And Argentina is one of the favorites this time — or it was until Tuesday — and also won the South American championship last year.

“I’m speechless,” Saudi Arabia fan Sultan Alharthi said. “I can’t even explain how much happy I am, because I didn’t expect we will win.

“I thought a draw would be fantastic against this team,” Alharthi added. “They came all the way just to win the World Cup. We did it today and I have to take some time to realize what happened.”

Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attended the match, and at one point wrapped a Saudi flag over his shoulders.

The moment, captured in online video and widely shared, would have been unthinkable only nearly two years ago when Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations boycotted Qatar over a political dispute.

On a giant screen near the official fan zone in Doha, a waving Saudi flag appeared among advertisements every few moments, flashing the message: “Congratulations.”

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman announced a snap public holiday for all workers and students in the kingdom in celebration of the win.

People watching the match at a fan zone in the capital, Riyadh, jumped with joy and cheered as the game ended.

Drivers honked their horns in celebration. Saudi authorities also allowed free entry to a state-sponsored sports and entertainment festival.

The gravity of the victory will eventually sink in. Saudi Arabia is a team that had only ever won three World Cup matches in its history prior to Tuesday’s game.

“One for the books,” Saudi Arabia coach Hervé Renard said. “Sometimes things are completely crazy.”

Goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais, who made two key saves late in the game to preserve the win on Tuesday at Lusail Stadium north of Doha, was almost subdued at the end, perhaps not grasping the magnitude of the upset.

Saudi Arabia’s fans celebrate their victory after the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

“I am very happy about this result that we have been able to obtain against this very storied team,” Alowais said solemnly. “We have prepared ourselves. We were 100 percent ready and hopefully we will have better results in the future. I felt we were especially good in the last minutes because we secured our three points.”

Not just in the last minutes. Despite trailing 1-0 at halftime after a 10th-minute goal from Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time, Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari managed to score a goal each early in the second half.

Saudi Arabia’s goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais, left, dives to make a save during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Then came more than 50 minutes, including added time at the end of the match at the referee’s discretion, of holding one of the tournament favorites at bay.

“All the stars aligned for us,” said Renard, who won the African Cup of Nations as coach of Zambia in 2012 and then again with Ivory Coast in 2015.

Renard has also coached Angola and Morocco, which he guided to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. He took over Saudi Arabia in 2019.

“We made history for Saudi football,” Renard said. “It will stay forever. This is the most important. But we also need to think about looking forward because we still have two games that are very very difficult for us.”

Saudi Arabia’s goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais celebrates with his team after winning the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Renard said he asked his players to limit the celebration after the game to 20 minutes.

“That’s all,” he said. “But there are still two games — or more.”

They still must face Poland on Saturday and then take on Mexico next Tuesday in Group C. Both are probably still favorites against Saudi Arabia — despite the upset.

He also suggested another possible truth: Messi and Argentina probably underestimated Saudi Arabia, which is only No. 51 in the FIFA ranking. Argentina is No. 3.

“But you know the motivation is not like you are playing Brazil,” he added.

Argentina soccer fans watch the team lose to Saudi Arabia at a World Cup Group C soccer match played in Qatar, on a large screen set up for fans in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos, Aires, Argentina, November 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Gustavo Garello)

An upset for the ages

The staggering result is right up there with the biggest upsets in tournament history.

Here is a look at some of the other major World Cup surprises through the years:

Cameroon 1, Argentina 0 (1990)

Diego Maradona, another Argentina great, led his country to the 1990 World Cup tournament in Italy as the defending champion. Maradona was established as the best player in the world and Argentina was favored to retain the title.

A little-known Cameroon team that was playing at only its second World Cup had other ideas in the tournament’s opening match against Argentina. Francois Omam-Biyik scored with a second-half header for the African team, which was also down to 10 men at the time after a red card. Cameroon eventually finished the game with nine men after another sending off but kept Argentina and Maradona out.

Argentina did recover to reach the final — something that may raise Messi’s spirits slightly in Qatar — but lost to West Germany in that deciding game.

Senegal 1, France 0 (2002)

France was also World Cup champion when it came up against another African underdog at the start of the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan.

France’s team was packed with some of the best players in the world and no one thought they could lose the game. But Papa Bouba Diop bundled in a goal in the 30th minute and Senegal kept its nerve for a famous win on its World Cup debut.

France ended up exiting in the group stage. Senegal went on to reach the quarterfinals, just as Cameroon did in 1990.

South Korea 2, Italy 1 (2002)

The 2002 World Cup threw up another eye-opener when co-host South Korea made a run to the semifinals.

South Korea had beaten Portugal in the group stage but bettered that upset with a 2-1 win in extra time over Italy in the last 16. Italy was a three-time champion at the time while South Korea had never won a World Cup game before the tournament.

Ahn Jung-hwan, who was playing his club soccer in Italy at the time, headed in a golden goal three minutes from the end of extra time to send the Italians home and reward a fanatical home crowd with a lasting World Cup memory.

United States 1, England 0 (1950)

Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens was the unlikely hero for the United States in a 1-0 upset over England at 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

The American team was basically made up of part-timers and the result reverberated across the game as one of the first big World Cup upsets.

North Korea 1, Italy 0 (1966)

Italy was on the wrong end of another upset in 1966 in England, when North Korea beat the Azzurri 1-0 in the first World Cup it ever played in. The result eliminated the Italians and sent the North Koreans to the quarterfinals.

North Korea wasn’t even expected to qualify for the tournament and didn’t play at another World Cup until 2010.

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