They said the Arab nations don’t have a footballing tradition. They do now. The World Cup may have begun with a loose performance from the hosts Qatar as they were beaten 2-0 by Ecuador in the opening match: the first hosts ever to lose their opening match.
But two days later Saudi Arabia rolled in from next door and beat Argentina. Saudi, ranked 51st in the world, beat the world No 3 — and there wasn’t a hint of fluke about it. Rather it was a classic minnows victory: all about spirit and collective endeavour.
Saudi played a high line and put their faith in VAR; Argentina had three first-half efforts ruled out for offside. But it was surely just a matter of time: Lionel Messi had put Argentina 1-0 up with a cute rolled penalty and more goals would surely come.
They sure did. They came at the other end because Saudi played with organisation, commitment and serious aggression — and the Argentinians didn’t fancy it. Perhaps it’s the eternal problem of the superstar: if you have Messi in your side, you just wait for him to win it for you. And he didn’t.
But never mind Messi: let’s praise the brave Green Falcons. Running and bullying is not enough: you need goals and the Saudis got two against a team that was supposed to have the best defence at the World Cup, unbeaten for 36 matches over three years.
The goals came from a wonderfully accurate running shot just inside the far post from Saleh Al Shehri, and five minutes later from Salem Al Dawsari’s inspired shot on the turn. After that it was all blocks and tackles and saves throughout 14 added minutes.
Mexico and Poland lie in wait for both teams, and Saudi might have enough left to reach the round of 16. And it’s not all over for Argentina: they lost their opening match to Cameroon in 1990 and still reached the final.
So we have a tournament on our hands: we have football at last. A few thoughts as we march on.
• VAR is going to make a real mess of this tournament. Ecuador’s third-minute goal against Qatar was ruled out, not because of a clear and obvious error — which is what VAR is for — but for a fraction of a hint of offside. The decision favoured the hosts: interesting moment for conspiracy theorists. In the England game against Iran there was a clear penalty when Harry Maguire was bundled to the floor at a corner: no foul, said VAR. A later check penalised England, correctly, for a similar but far less obvious offence. What do these people think they’re doing?
• England are not as good as they looked when scoring six against Iran. But watch out for Jude Bellingham who, at age 19, is playing like England’s leader: with strong tackles, accurate passes, intelligent running and a sweetly taken opening goal. He could become a player of genuine greatness.
• Lord, these matches are going on and on: 10 minutes added time has become routine. Presumably — nobody tells us anything — it’s to stop coaches using up time with late substitutions. Good idea: just a bit odd to try it out at a World Cup.
• The problem of the lone superstar is that sometimes he really will ride to the rescue and make everything all right. Wales had been doing the plucky underdog bit all night but still looked as if they were going to lose to USA. But then along comes good ol’ Gareth Bale, not only winning a penalty but damn near busting the net when he took it. He didn’t do much else: but it was enough.