DOHA, Qatar (AP) — With a squad packed with national league players and a French coach, Saudi Arabia’s upset victory over Lionel Messi and Argentina suddenly thrust the team into the international spotlight.
A skyscraper in central Doha was lit up in the image of the Saudi Arabian flag on Tuesday night as fans across the Middle East celebrated the upset victory. In London, the Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat read: “Green wizards defy expectations.”
So who are these guys?
While Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest-ranked team in the tournament, doesn’t have a big star like Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, many of the players were also part of the 2018 World Cup squad. But none play outside of their country of origin.
Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari became instant national heroes with second-half goals in a 2-1 win over the Argentines. Both play for Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia’s top league, as does goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais, who preserved the win with a pair of late saves. All three also played in Russia four years ago.
In fact, 12 players on the squad’s 26-man roster are with Al Hilal, who has won a record 18 Saudi league championships and is managed by Argentina’s Ramón Díaz. Al Nassr has six players from the national team.
THE SALEM MOMENT
Aldawsari scored the game-winner in the 53rd minute against Argentina, celebrating with a cartwheel and backflip.
He is one of the best-known players in the Saudi Arabia squad. While he has played for Al Hilal since 2011, he was briefly loaned out to Spanish club Villarreal and made one appearance.
He now owns one of the greatest goals in the country’s history, joining Saeed Al-Owairan, who scored the only goal in a 1994 World Cup win over Belgium.
The Saudi team is led by Renard, a 54-year-old French coach who has gone through several national teams.
Before taking charge of Saudi Arabia in 2019, he managed Morocco at the 2018 World Cup. He is the only coach to have led two different national teams to African Cup titles: Zambia in 2012 and the Ivory Coast three years later. .
When Renard was beginning his coaching career, he worked as a janitor, eventually opening his own cleaning company.
“When you get to a World Cup, you need to believe in yourself. Anything can happen in football. Sometimes the opponent is not at his best motivational moment”, said Renard. “This has happened to us when we played against a lower-ranked team. This is what other people don’t understand.”
CLUB WORLD CUP
Al Hilal is one of the best clubs in Asia. Based in Riyadh, the team reached the semi-finals of the Club World Cup in February. But Chelsea beat Al Hilal 1–0 through a Romelu Lukaku goal from close range in the 32nd minute. Chelsea went on to win the event, beating Palmeiras in the final.
UNTIL NEXT TIME
After getting past Messi, Saudi Arabia has a shot at another of the game’s biggest stars, Robert Lewandowski, on Saturday against Poland.
Poland settled for a goalless draw with Mexico in their opening Group C match after Guillermo Ochoa saved a Lewandowski penalty attempt in the second half.
The Green Hawks, currently at the top of the group, wrap up the opening leg on Wednesday against Mexico.
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