Big upset puts world spotlight on Saudi Arabian players

DOHA, Qatar — With a roster packed with domestic league players and a French coach, Saudi Arabia’s surprise victory over Lionel Messi and Argentina suddenly thrust the team into the international spotlight.

A skyscraper in downtown Doha was lit up with 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 squad that went to the 2018 World Cup. But none play outside their country of origin.

Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari instantly became 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 retained victory with a couple of late saves. All three also played in Russia four years ago.

In fact, 12 players on the team’s 26-man roster are with Al Hilal, who have won a record 18 Saudi league championships and are managed by Ramon Diaz of Argentina. Al Nassr has six players from the national team.

THE MOMENT OF SALEM

Aldawsari scored the game-winning goal in the 53rd minute against Argentina, celebrating with a somersault and backflip.

He is one of the best known players in the Saudi Arabia squad. Although 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 victory over Belgium in the 1994 World Cup.

FRENCH CONNECTION

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 Côte d’Ivoire three times. years later.

When Renard was starting his coaching career, he worked as a janitor and eventually opened his own cleaning business.

“When you get to a World Cup, you need to believe in yourself. Anything can happen in football. Sometimes the opponent is not in his best motivation,” Renard said. “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 with 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 have 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 first Group C game after Guillermo Ochoa saved a Lewandowski penalty attempt in the second half.

The Halcones Verdes, currently at the top of the group, wrap up the opening leg on Wednesday against Mexico.

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