Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons Make History in Qatar

In a stunning 10-minute period after halftime, they turned the game on its head in Lusail
Photo by Sebastian Frej/MB Media/Getty Images.

Last Tuesday, Saudi Arabia, ranked 51st in the world, stunned two-time World Cup winners Argentina in a thrilling Group C opener in Lusail, pulling off one of the biggest World Cup shocks in history.

Despite their early dominance, La Albiceleste were not at full strength in the first half, and they were at times sloppy in possession, giving Hervé Renard's Saudi Arabia side a glimmer of hope. In a stunning 10-minute period after halftime, the Green Falcons turned the game on its head, with Saleh Al Shehri leveling with a low effort and Salem Al Dawsari firing them ahead, causing pandemonium in the stands.

Thousands of Saudi fans inside Lusail Stadium couldn't believe what they were seeing as they celebrated their unexpected victory.

For much of the game, it didn't appear that such a comeback was possible. Argentina dominated the game after taking the lead, but whatever Saudi manager Hervé Renard said at halftime worked. His team played with newfound confidence, going toe-to-toe with Argentina's world-class squad.

Saudi Arabia has qualified for six FIFA World Cup tournaments, including 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2018, as well as the ongoing 2022 World Cup. Their best season was in 1994, when they advanced to the round of 16.

Salem Al-Dawsari of Saudi Arabia celebrates the 2-1 victory over Argentina during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 group C match at the Lusail stadium on Nov. 22, 2022 in Lusail City, Qatar. (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)

Hervé Renard claimed that the stars were aligned for Saudi Arabia and that Argentina underestimated his team following one of the greatest World Cup upsets against the Copa América champions.

Renard said: "Today all the stars in the sky were in a line for us but we can’t forget that Argentina are a fantastic team. They came here without losing in 36 games, they are South American champions and they have an amazing player, but this is football. Sometimes something completely crazy can happen."

Renard, Saudi Arabia's French coach, added: "When you go into a World Cup, you have to believe in yourself. In football, anything can happen. Sometimes the opponent's motivation isn't the best. This happened when we were playing a lower-ranked team. This is what the rest of the world doesn't get."

Lionel Scaloni's men must now do everything possible to keep their hopes of a first global triumph since 1986 alive and to give Messi a fitting end to what will almost certainly be his final World Cup.

In Mexico's first Group C game against Poland, Guillermo Ochoa's penalty save proved crucial as Mexico earned a point after Robert Lewandowski missed from the spot.

A flowing game with few fouls but fewer chances came to life around the half-hour mark when Alexis Vega saw his header fly wide before Jesus Gallardo was denied with a last-man tackle two minutes later with an open goal at his mercy.

Following their stunning upset of Argentina, one of the tournament favorites earlier in the day, Saudi Arabia now leads the group.

Saudi Arabia will look to pull off another stunning result when they face Poland in their second group match on Saturday, while Scaloni's team will look to rebound from their disappointing defeat against Gerardo Martino's Mexico.

Abdullah Al-Hanyan, Saudi sports journalist and reporter for the Saudi Arriyadiyah Newspaper.  (Courtesy of Abdullah Al-Hanyan)

Abdullah Al-Hanyan is a Saudi sports journalist and reporter for the Saudi Arriyadiyah newspaper who described to Majalla this historic win by saying; "It's a fantastic feeling, a historic victory, both in terms of performance and result."

"This historic victory is a source of pride for all Saudis and their leaders, as well as all Arabs," Al-Hanyan added

"The match was characterized by great tactical discipline, a high technical presence of the players, and implementation of the coaching staff's instructions, as well as a high fighting spirit throughout the match."

"It will be difficult, and the ceiling of ambition has risen for the fans, and they are waiting for great matches, no less than the Argentina match, and the Falcons' chances of qualifying for the round of 16 remain great," Al-Hanyan said of the Green Falcons' remaining matches against Poland and Mexico.

Regarding the absence of Salman Al-Faraj and Yasser Alshahrani from the remaining matches, Al-Hanyan stated: "Salman Al-Faraj and Yasser Alshahrani are two important players, and their influence is great due to experience, but the presence of ready and capable substitutes will reduce the impact of their absence, and we saw that the Saudi national team plays as a group wonderfully and does not rely on specific players, as evidenced by the brilliance of a large number of players in matches."

Hervé Renard, Saudi Arabia's Coach, Adds to His Legacy

Hervé Renard coached lower-level teams for the majority of his early career. He began his career with the little-known French club SC Draguignan in 1999. He took over as manager of Cambridge United, who were in the English third division at the time, after assisting them in three consecutive promotions. After that, his journeyman career took him to Vietnam to coach Nam Dinh. After a few months in South-East Asia, he returned to France to join AS Cherbourg in the fifth division.

Regardless of level or opponent, the Frenchman's teams have always used a high defensive line and a high press. So, when Saudi Arabia adopted that strategy against Argentina, what was considered "bold" by the rest of the world was actually quite simple for Hervé Renard.

Saudi Arabia's head coach Hervé Renard reacts during the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar. (AP)

Possession-based football was important to the 54-year-old. When his players lost possession, they were expected to apply a high press to regain possession. He prioritized fitness to play with such intensity, and wherever he went, there was a shift in the off-field culture, whether it was food and nutrition or post-match recovery.

Abdullah Al-Hanyan also praised Saudi Arabia's "bold" strategy of employing a high defensive line and high press against Argentina: "Renard's approach was the most basic. The Frenchman was doing what he'd always done, and he wasn't about to change his ways, even if it meant risking humiliation in his team's World Cup opener," Al-Hanyan said.

"The high-risk, high-reward strategy paid off in the end, as Saudi Arabia, which had only three World Cup wins prior to Tuesday, stunned tournament favorites Argentina 2-1 in Group C. Saudi Arabia exhibited extraordinary tenacity and fitness in neutralizing Argentina's threats before launching counterattacks. What surprised the rest of the world was nothing out of the ordinary for Hervé Renard’s team,”   Al-Hanyan added.

Tuesday's victory was yet another highlight for the unheralded coach, who has a history of turning underdogs into winners, particularly national teams. Renard hasn't always had success at the club level, but it’s been a different story with national teams.

He is the only coach to have won the African Cup of Nations with two different countries – Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast three years later. Renard became Africa's highest-paid manager in 2016 when he took over as coach of Morocco, which he led to their first World Cup appearance since 1998 in 2018.

Saudi Arabia secured an incredible 2-1 win over Argentina in Lusail. (Getty Images)

Renard believes it is unlucky to wear his white shirt unbuttoned at the top.

In an interview, he explained why and how he started wearing the shirt during games. Renard recalled, "We (Zambia) were playing Cameroon in the second game of the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. I wore a light blue shirt, but we lost 3-2, so I changed into a white shirt. We won the game and took first place in the group, ahead of Cameroon. "

Since then, the white shirt has been the Frenchman's go-to.

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