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Saudi Arabia shock Argentina, but this is no fairy tale

James Thorogood
November 22, 2022

Lionel Messi scored, but Argentina's World Cup got off to the worst possible start with a loss to Saudi Arabia. This, however, is not the straightforward romantic fairy tale it seems at first glance.

Lionel Messi hangs his head after Argentina's loss to Saudi Arabia
Lionel Messi gave Argentina an early lead that was overturned in the second halfImage: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

At a tournament mired by host nation Qatar’s human right’s issues, who’d have thought that it would be Saudi Arabia who reminded football fans around the world why they love the sport?

Up against an Argentina side hoping to ride a wave of euphoria driven by Lionel Messi's bid to win his first World Cup title at his likely last-ever World Cup, Saudi Arabia ripped up the script.

Despite being 1-0 down at half-time after Messi became only the fifth player to score at four different World Cups, Herve Renard's side came from behind to stun Argentina, who were on a 36-game unbeaten streak coming into their opening game in Group C.

"All the stars aligned for us,'' Renard said. "We made history for Saudi football.'' The loss will go down as one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, with Saudi Arabia ranked outside FIFA's top 50 and Argentina among the pre-tournament favorites, at number 3.

Fairy tale without a fitting protagonist

An underdog story is one of the great narratives sport can spin, but zoom out from Saudi Arabia's 2-1 win and it’s a result that could have implications that stretch beyond the pitch.

Lives have been lost to ensure the World Cup could take place in Qatar, with the host nation vilified for their human right’s offences, the lack of LGBTQ+ rights in the country and their reticence to let anyone or anything bear a rainbow motif.

World governing body FIFA have come under fire as a result, but its president, Gianni Infantino, provided staunch support for the host nation before he welcomed the world to a "celebration of football" at the opening ceremony.

Given that Infantino sat next to Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud at the ceremony, the fear is that none of the criticism has got through. Saudi Arabia, a state that still executes people and is routinely accused of shocking human rights violations, is reportedly preparing a bid to host the 2030 World Cup.

Portugal, Spain and Ukraine's joint bid is the only one that has been officially submitted, but it is expected to face competition from others being put together by Egypt, Greece and Saudi Arabia, as well as a South American contingent.

All part of 'Vision 2030'

Saudi Arabia’s desire to host the World Cup is tied into "Vision 2030" which is described as "a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia to the world."

Gianni Infantino and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud watch Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
Gianni Infantino sat next to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud at the opening ceremonyImage: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

That vision has seen Saudi Arabia flex their financial might with ventures in cricket, Formula 1, boxing, tennis and golf as the state looks to revamp its image. In the world of football, a potential World Cup bid suggest that the state’s sovereign wealth fund PIF’s heavy investment in Premier League club Newcastle United is just one of many dominoes to fall.

With the national team winning acclaim for their upset against Argentina, the positive images produced all help the cause. While Qatar have been maligned and mocked, Saudi Arabia have stolen the spotlight as a side with genuine World Cup pedigree and fans who actually showed up for their side.

Their win was a victory in pure football terms. But it’s a setback for the bigger issues surrounding the World Cup in Qatar and how the football world could be shaped by FIFA in coming years.

Edited by: Matt Pearson

James Thorogood Sports reporter and editor, host of Project FußballJMThorogood