‘We gave them a response’: Saudi Arabia claim their place in World Cup history

Cameroon against Argentina at Italia 90. USA versus England in Belo Horizonte in 1950. Senegal taking on France in Seoul 20 years ago. Aficionados will argue about the order, but there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 victory over Argentina in Doha on Tuesday will go down alongside those matches as one of the greatest World Cup shocks of all time.

Second-half goals from Saleh al-Shehri and Salem al-Dawsari cancelled out a first-half penalty from Lionel Messi to give the Saudis a real chance of qualifying for the knockout stages in Qatar. But the facts of the game were barely the start of it, the significance of the moment extending well beyond the scope of just 90 minutes.

It would be remiss not to start with what it means for the Saudi team and their fans, so indelibly did both leave their mark on the 88,000 capacity Lusail Stadium. Nobody expected them to win against the two-times world champions. This is the sixth World Cup for which the Saudis have qualified, their record before this tournament: played 16, won three, lost 11.

They are perennial minnows, the butt of World Cup jokes and their pre-match press conference for this fixture was attended by a handful of journalists. One player said the questions asked by those who did turn up were used as typical dressing-room motivation. “I enjoyed embarrassing some of those journalists, especially those at the press conferences,” the midfielder Abdulelah al-Malki said. “They weren’t very respectful to us but we gave them a response.”

Not just playing for pride, the Saudis were also playing for a huge contingent of travelling fans. Swathes of emerald green ran around the ground, behind the goal in which the Saudis scored twice and up into the rafters that reverberated with noise throughout. Numbering tens of thousands the Saudi support will be one of the largest at this World Cup; their songs and jeers and constant bouncing also recognisably the behaviour of football ultras.

“I would like to thank everyone who attended from Saudi Arabia”, said Shehri. “Hopefully they went back to their hotels happy. We still need them, we still have two matches more and I hope they will support us like they did today.”

The players responded to the roars of the crowd and, especially in the second half, delivered a performance of gusto, scoring two fine goals and throwing bodies at the ball to preserve their lead. It was also a tactically astute showing and when the players emerged in the tunnel afterwards there was no sign of elation. Instead the players, who all play for domestic club sides, uttered the more prosaic and familiar Premier League refrain (at least in translation from the Arabic) of being “happy with the three points”.

In short, this was a match that said Saudi Arabia had arrived and Wednesday has been declared a national holiday. But the timing of the team’s historic achievement is perhaps not coincidental. The first World Cup in the Middle East remains beset by controversy but it is also giving Qatar the global spotlight ahead of its longtime rival. This match saw Saudi step centre stage however and, not only that, they claimed the culturally powerful title of sporting underdog. In the stands fans cheered wearing Newcastle United kits (designed in Saudi colours). In the executive boxes, the emir of Qatar briefly raised the Saudi flag. This was not a match without political significance.

It was also a contest played by two teams, and for Argentina it ended in defeat. For many they are one of the clear favourites to win this tournament and they will likely still qualify for the knockout stages. But this was a chastening loss, their first defeat in 37 matches, and the majority of the Argentina squad left the stadium in funereal silence. One exception was the captain and, for many, the best player to ever play the game: Messi.

He performed his media duties, speaking to clambering hordes of Argentinian media, accepting the defeat, trying not to let it gather too much added significance. This tournament has been framed as the 35-year-old’s swansong, his last chance to win the one title that has eluded him in his garlanded career. He has been in sparkling form for his club side, Paris St-Germain, but in the second half here he looked jaded, unable to impose himself.

Messi has his own place in the political backdrop against which this tournament is being played. PSG are owned by Qatar Sports Investments, a subsidiary of the country’s sovereign wealth fund. The player himself, meanwhile, became this year a “brand ambassador” for the tourist authority of Saudi Arabia, receiving an undisclosed but unlikely insubstantial fee. An icon across the world, he is a symbolic figure in the Gulf too. As he approached the exit of the Lusail Stadium the Guardian asked Messi whether, in his role as ambassador, he considered this a good day for Saudi Arabia. The legend did not respond.