Saudi Arabia produced the biggest surprise of the World Cup in Qatar, and one of the biggest in the history of the competition, with a 2-1 victory over Argentina in the first match of Group C. Hervé Renard completed his tally with the most important result of a perhaps underrated career.
Until November 22, 2022, Saudi Arabia’s World Cup history was primarily Saeed Al-Owairan’s terrific run against Belgium in 1994. One of the finest goals ever scored at the finals, by comparison, not a few times, with the one managed by Diego Maradona against England in 1986. From now on, the Saudis have one more legendary World Cup moment to remember for years to come.
At Qatar’s biggest World Cup arena, the Lusail Iconic Stadium, Salem Al-Dawsari scored a goal that sparked a national celebration in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. Literally and figuratively. The day after the sensational victory over Argentina was declared a national holiday by King Salman.
For Al-Dawsari, being the hero of the Saudi national team is nothing new. At the previous edition of the World Cup, in 2018, in Russia, he scored the winning goal against Egypt (2-1), the first of the “Green Falcons” at this competition after 24 years. But, for sure, the successful execution against the two-time world champions is on a completely different level. And it strengthens his status as a star of the national team. However, the artisan of Saudi Arabia’s great success must be looked for elsewhere. On the bench, in the person of Hervé Renard.
Aged 54, the French technician has over time built his reputation as a globetrotter, but also as a man capable of producing results. A former defender with a modest career, Renard began coaching obscure teams before rising to prominence as Zambia’s coach. In his first term, he took the team to the quarter-finals of the African Cup for the first time in 14 years. In the second, he made it the continent’s first champion in 2012. Three years later, he became the first coach to win the African Cup with two national teams, after leading Ivory Coast to the trophy for the first time in 23 for years.
He also achieved the next performance as a coach of an African national team. He took over the Morocco team, which he took to the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. In 2018, the “Atlas Lions” finished last in a group with Portugal, Spain and Iran, with only one point, but their performances were much better than the ranking. Since 2019, he has been coaching Saudi Arabia, which he qualified for the World Cup in Qatar after a preliminary campaign with only one failure. And now, the incredible victory with Argentina.
“All the stars in the sky have aligned for us. This is football, sometimes completely crazy things happen,” said the Frenchman at the end of the game with the South Americans. But the explanation for the Saudi victory is not so simple. What happened at the Lusail Iconic Stadium was no accident. Renard had a clear plan, which his team executed flawlessly. The defensive line stood tall and caught the Argentinians offside many times, especially in the first half, for example. Or the aggressive pressing and strangulation of any space, to prevent the construction of Argentina or the appearance between the lines of Lionel Scaloni’s men. This is how, in many moments, the South American champion was forced to resort to long balls, which made the mission of the Saudis easier.
After Mexico and Poland finished in a 0-0 draw, Saudi Arabia leads Group C and can dream of making it past the World Cup group stage again. It would truly be the masterpiece of a coach who is no stranger to miracles.