Saudi Arabia supporters
Supporters celebrate Saudi Arabia’s victory over Argentina in the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group C football match the Lusail Stadium, north of Doha, Qatar, on November 22, 2022. The 2-1 win will rank as one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history. Image Credit: AFP

Is the Saudi shocker the biggest in a World Cup? That’s the question on everyone’s lips. It could well be. And without a doubt, it’s the biggest upset of the century.

Let’s consider the facts. Argentina is third in FIFA rankings, and Saudi Arabia are at a lowly 51 (even below hosts Qatar at 50). It’s clear that the Qatar World Cup Group C fixture is a mismatch. So, why would anybody fancy the Gulf nation’s chances?

When Argentinian football magician Lionel Messi buried a penalty in the Saudi net in the 10th minute, visions of a rout loomed large. Another thrashing? I thought. Images of England’s demolition of Iran the previous day (November 21) flashed up. I was wrong. Saudi Arabia had much more fight in them.

Not only did the Saudis equalise in under 30 minutes, but they also snatched the lead in another five minutes. Then they defended with all their heart, while the Argentinian challenge wilted. Till the final whistle, I expected an equaliser. Because this is Argentina. And they have Messi. Well, the magic never happened.

Then arose the question: Is this the biggest upset in World Cup? I jogged my memory and came up with other surprise results in the tournament.

Argentina’s stumble in Italia ’90

Argentina seemed to have made a habit of losing to less-fancied teams. Remember 1990, when Cameroon and Roger Milla captured the world’s imagination? Diego Maradona’s team lost to Cameroon but shrugged off the loss to make the final, which they lost to Germany.

I remember Nigeria upstaging France in 1998 before crashing out in the round of 16. The same year, Brazil suffered an unlikely loss at the hands of Norway, who fell by the wayside in the next round. But the Latin Americans bounced back to enter the final, only to lose to France, who put the loss to Nigeria behind them.

There were two upsets in 2002: Senegal downed World Cup winners and Euro champions France, while co-hosts South Korea stunned Italy in a round of 16 game. The Koreans later shocked Spain before losing to Germany in the semifinal. France never really recovered and crashed out in the group stage.

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Algeria’s win over West Germany in Espana 82 is fresh in my memory, mainly because of Jupp Derwall’s boast. The German coach had said they would catch the first flight home if Germany lost. The World Cup debutants won. Derwall didn’t keep his word, and Germany qualified with a controversial win over Austria (a 1-0 win that ejected Algeria, while Austria qualified). Germany put aside the indignities and marched into the final, only to be halted by Italy and Paolo Rossi.

Italy are always susceptible to upsets. After the 2002 setback, they suffered more ignominy in 2014, with Costa Rica bundling them aside. The Italians never recovered and exited in the group stage.

A glance through the World Cup showed that newcomers North Korea upended Italy in 1966 but were lanced down in the quarterfinals by the Portuguese Golden Boot winner Eusebio. He produced a four-goal burst when North Korea were leading 3-0.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

Saudi football’s finest moment

Another one that merits attention is debutants East Germany’s defeat of West Germany in 1974. Those were the times of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall. The loss would have sent shock waves through West Germany. But Franz Beckenbauer steered to team out of the dumps and into the final, where they doused the flair and finesse of the Johan Cruyff-led Netherlands.

For football pundits, USA’s 1-0 win over in 1950 is the biggest shock win. That’s barely 20 years after the World Cup began and after two editions were cancelled due to the Second World War. The tournament is more remembered for hosts Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the final at the Maracana Stadium. It’s called the Maracana Blow, a festering wound in Brazilian football.

Argentina too will remember the Lusail blow. But they can take heart from the recoveries of other giants in the past. For Saudi Arabia, the win will be written in golden letters in their annals of football.

Which brings us to the question: Is Saudi win the biggest upset? It isn’t easy to compare as some games belong to a different era. And football has spread to more countries, and skill development is better now. Yet the Saudi win should rank at the top. Simply because, nobody saw it coming.