Saudi Arabia still cannot be said to be a better football team than Argentina. But the Saudis, ranked 53rd in the world, beat Argentina to fourth place and lead Lionel Messi, one of the game’s all-time greats at the 2022 FIFA World Cup on 22 November.
Led by star goal scorers Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem and defended by the impregnable goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Owais, who stopped five shots on goal, the Saudi defence managed to frustrate Argentina.
Time stood still as Al-Dawsari plucked the ball out from the sky and turned inside two Argentina defenders before curling his finish beyond the reach of Aston Villa goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, producing one of the biggest moments of any World Cup finals.
Lionel Messi had given one of the pre-tournament favourites the lead from the penalty spot after a contentious VAR decision (10) but Saleh Al-Shehri levelled just 3 min into the second period to set up an almighty upset.
Herve Renard, the Falcons’ head coach, strategised the high defensive line of Saudi Arabia that caught Argentina in a series of offside traps, leading to three disallowed goals within 13 min of the match. Argentina was exhausted after repeated failures to score goals fair and square, playing in a new ‘semi-automated offside’ technology system. FIFA says the system uses 12 cameras around the stadium to track 29 points on each player’s body, and a sensor inside the ball to ensure a high degree of accuracy.
Messi netted the ball in 21 min, but when the ball was passed, he leaned across the defensive line and the goal was denied.
Lautaro Martinez scored twice in 26 min and 34 min. On both occasions, he was found offside.
The trap was so effective that Argentina were caught offside at least seven times throughout the match.
Saudi Arabia effectively used Argentina’s main strength against them. The South American side is known for its attacking game, with players adept at penetrating the back line with quick passes. By pushing the pitch forward, Saudi Arabia was taking risks, making itself somewhat vulnerable. But the smart strategy ended up paying off, making the most of the new technology that worked with precision punishment against Argentina.
“All the stars in the sky were aligned for us, but don’t forget Argentina are still a fantastic team,” Renard told a post-match news conference. It’s football, sometimes totally crazy things can happen.”