Many had expected the South American team, ranked third in the world, unbeaten for three years and among the favorites to win the tournament, to sweep aside its opponent, ranked 48 places below it in the world rankings.
All the pre-match talk focused on Messi, one of the greatest players ever who is playing in what is likely to be his last World Cup. The Argentina captain scored an early penalty to put his side in the lead, but two second-half goals from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari turned the game on its head.
The thousands of Saudi fans inside the Lusail Stadium couldn’t believe what they were watching as they celebrated their unexpected victory.
Such a comeback hadn’t looked remotely possible for much of the match. Argentina controlled the game after taking the lead but whatever Saudi manger Hervé Renard said at halftime worked. His team came out with a new-found belief and stood toe-to-toe with Argentina’s world-class team.
Al Dawsari’s incredible winner from distance – and subsequent acrobatic celebration – will become one of the moments of this or any World Cup and undoubtedly, in time, an ‘I-was-there’ moment for fans.
As full-time neared, fans cheered every tackle and save as if they were goals and, when the match did indeed end, Saudi Arabia fans reacted with frenzy.
Both sets of players sunk to their knees, from disbelief and exhaustion. Messi, who so many had come see play, looked distraught as he walked off with Saudi fans cheering his name ironically.
According to sports data group Gracenote, which is a Nielsen company, Tuesday’s result was the biggest upset in the history of the competition.
“The most surprising World Cup win ever according to Gracenote was USA’s victory over England in 1950 with a 9.5% chance of victory for the US team but Saudi Arabia’s chance of victory today was estimated at 8.7% so takes over at number one,” it 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.
Saudi players smiled and laughed with reporters as they left the stadium, a stark contrast to the Argentine squad who walked with their heads down onto the team bus. Messi was one of the few to stop and speak to journalists and even stopped for photos.