One of world soccer’s legendary teams, boasting arguably the greatest player in the history of the sport and a host of millionaire stars, has been humbled — by the most unlikely of adversaries.
Argentina, ranked third in the world according to FIFA, lost 2-1 to the team ranked 51st, Saudi Arabia, in a thrilling match Tuesday at the Qatar World Cup.
Lionel Messi, the record-breaking talisman responsible for such glories at Barcelona and now Paris Saint Germain, voted the world’s best player seven times, put Argentina ahead from the penalty spot after 10 minutes.
But in a 10-minute period after half-time, goals from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari overturned the Argentine lead, and the Saudis were able to hold on to confirm one of the biggest World Cup upsets since the tournament began in 1930.
It was Argentina’s first defeat in 36 games — the last team to beat them was fellow soccer heavyweight Brazil in 2019. At this World Cup, only Ghana was lower than Saudi Arabia in the rankings.
The significance of the result, in the first World Cup to be staged in an Arab country, will be felt across the region despite the many controversies the tournament has generated. Thousands of Saudi fans were seen on social media dancing, banging drums and singing after the match in the Doha sunshine.
The latter goal was particularly skillful. After deftly controlling a loose ball, Al-Dawsari, facing away from goal, turned inside to bewilder two Argentina defenders before sidestepping a third and launching a rocket of a shot in the far corner, sending the army of green-clad Saudi fans into fevered celebration.
The South Americans weren’t just beaten, they comprehensively outplayed by a team known as the Green Falcons, few of whom are well-known outside their homeland except to the most committed soccer followers.
Goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais was commanding in the air and looked assured, while defender Abdulelah Al-Amri was on the goal-line to head away an otherwise certain goal.
For Messi, one of the most recognizable faces in the sports world who is almost certainly playing in his last World Cup, the defeat raises the possibility that he could end his career without winning the prestigious tournament — one of the few achievements he has yet to conquer.
He is now the fifth player to score at four World Cups, joining Brazilian legend Pele and Cristiano Ronaldo. But that may be scant consolation if his team can’t progress from the first round.
For Argentina, the defeat brought back memories of their 1-0 defeat to a spirited Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup in Italy, then led by another storied megastar, Diego Maradona.
The result also had echoes of Senegal beating France, then the defending world champions, 1-0, in the 2002 World Cup.
But given Saudi’s victory against such a daunting foe and the sheer gap in profile and standing between the two, this may be the greatest World Cup shocker yet.