As the Saudi team walked through the mixed zone at Lusail Stadium – those relative unknowns who had produced something that reverberated around the planet – they all had the same line for the media on standby.
“It’s just three points.”
It’s an attitude that was forged in them by Hervé Renard, and probably what is needed to obtain such a result. After the game, the accomplished coach told them to celebrate for 20 minutes “and that’s it”.
It is however much more than a victory or three points. It is one of the greatest sensations in World Cup history and perhaps the greatest shock of all time.
What would surpass it? Perhaps Argentina’s own loss to Cameroon in 1990. Even though it was in a very different era of football, the gaps weren’t as pronounced. That’s why you could say it had a similar feel to Algeria beating West Germany in 1982, but not quite the same dynamic. Perhaps the closest scale was Senegal beating France in 2002.
This Argentina is not quite this French team, given that the latter was the reigning world and European champion. But then this Saudi team did not have the European pedigree of this Senegalese team. The fully deserved goalkeeper and man of the match, Mohammed Al Owais, is the substitute goalkeeper for his team Al Hilal. He is now responsible for one of the great moments of the World Cup, in his stoppage of Nicolas Tagliafico.
It was, quite simply, an awesome moment.
And that’s something worth thinking about when it comes to results like this. There are so many things you can reduce to math. It’s ultimately about something bigger, beyond quantification, which is the emotion of it all.
That’s what Lusail Stadium radiated. With tens of thousands of supporters from both countries, it was perhaps the first real footballing opportunity of this World Cup.
It was about the people and the simple humanity of it all.
There is the more complicated issue, of course, of the use of this by the Saudi state. This led to an even more politically weighed moment, which was the Emir of Qatar wielding the Saudi scarf. This would have been unthinkable just two years ago, given the blockade of the Gulf.
But, despite all that states, elites and high powers seek to use these moments, there remains something so much more intrinsic and instinctive about football that gives it its power in the first place.
It’s something the World Cup uniquely captures, including in Russia. The people and the culture of football are always separated from the state which tries to use them.
That’s why a politically complicated occasion like this can still be enjoyed.
This is not a state that seeks to whitewash a team. It’s just a national team, with all its history and background.
Argentina, for its part, has seen worse.
That’s why, despite the angst that plagued them on the pitch, there was actually a surprising calm in the dressing room.
Lionel Messi told the group to keep calm and stay together they could still recover.
“It’s a band that stands out for its unity,” he said later. “It’s time to be more united than ever, to show that we are really strong. This group has not been through a situation like this for a long time.
He was, of course, referring to that 36 game unbeaten streak, but he could just as easily say how they still made it to the 1990 final despite losing to Cameroon.
The biggest concern in all of this, however, is that it was a hugely underwhelming performance. While Argentina had put together some good moments as they thought they were navigating the first half, they never looked entirely convincing. Saudi Arabia had already experienced shortcomings, which were mostly filled by their intense pressing.
It happened in Argentina, and meant they couldn’t find the rhythm. They barely produced anything in general play in the second half. There was little building in their attack, with the team increasingly looking to get it to Messi. He was almost instantly ousted.
That’s no excuse, but it’s at least possible that part of it stems from the difference in preparation.
While Saudi Arabia spent a month together and seemed to have enjoyed it physically, Argentina only had seven days. They looked like lead.
This is why, far from being a result that stands out, it could represent a kind of trend. The top teams’ lack of preparation time is similar to the 2002 World Cup in that sense, and it was defined by surprises.
Argentina, of course, came out early.
Messi told the players to banish such thoughts from their minds and just focus on Mexico. It could be a game with a few different forces at work. In the same way that this tournament seems to have a psychological hold on Argentina, Argentina seems to have a psychological hold on Mexico. They beat them in 2006 and 2010.
They just need to realize that, right now, all that matters is Saturday.
Renard has meanwhile told his players to look far beyond this game.
“All the stars in the sky were in the same line for us,” the Saudi coach said afterwards. “Don’t forget that Argentina are a fantastic team. They came here without losing in 36 games. They were, they are, South American champions. They have incredible players. But that’s football, sometimes crazy things can happen.
And yet, as Argentina must now repeat it as much as Saudi Arabia, it is only one game. Even if there is one that will go down in history.