Saudi Arabia exit World Cup promising a bright future despite missed chance against Mexico

Herve Renard admits his players fell short at the last hurdle but there is still plenty of pride

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On the pitch there were tears, off it a tacit understanding they simply had not done enough.

Salem Al Dawsari was crying, Herve Renard candid.

“The result does not reflect the reality of the match,” the French coach conceded following the 2-1 defeat to Mexico that derailed Saudi Arabia’s dream. “We deserved to lose by more goals.”

Saudi’s worst display of the World Cup came in the most important match, right when they required another gargantuan game.

Renard pointed to his side’s inability to cope with Mexico’s intensity and conviction; right from the off, from when Alexis Vega broke through on three minutes and forced goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais to thrust forward from his line, Saudi were second best.

But it did not feel the pressure to perform - a common criticism in the past - had paralysed the team. More crucially, it was the missing men. Salman Al Faraj, the inspirational captain, was injured. Yasser Al Shahrani, the similarly experienced full-back, and defensive counterpart Mohammed Al Breik, too. Midfielder Abdulelah Al Malki, meanwhile, was suspended.

And so Saudi offered an understandably disjointed display, way too open throughout, never really a threat to Mexico, never truly threatening to grasp the chance to become only the second team from the kingdom to make the World Cup knockouts. It feels a long way back to 1994. It is.

Yet the way forward still feels full of promise. For sure, Saudi will rue an opportunity lost, the failure to build on that genuinely incredible opening victory against Argentina – really, Argentina – and a missed penalty to draw level against Poland and the missed chances then that continually came and went. Poland went on to win, leaving Saudi needing something from Mexico.

That it didn’t come will sting for some time, but the positives are plenty. Saudi, the tournament's second-lowest ranked team at No 51, shocked the world’s third best team. They burnished this World Cup with one of the greatest results from all of them.

A 26-man squad consisting of solely Saudi-based players upset Lionel Messi, Angel Di Maria, Lautaro Martinez and pals, and outplayed for the majority Robert Lewandowski’s Poland.

Saudi Arabia v Mexico ratings

Seemingly everywhere, Saudi's support helped bring the World Cup to life, even if those enquiring about Messi’s whereabouts in the aftermath of the 2-1 triumph can now be quietened somewhat with: “The last 16, don’t you know?”

Prior to Mexico, Renard warned his players that, should they not get through, they would be forgotten 30 years from now. But that was presumably purely another attempt to extract another drive from his battle-weary troops.

They could not answer the rally cry, although Salem Al Dawsari’s winner against Argentina will unquestionably live long in the memory. With two goals this tournament – if only Wojciech Szczesny had not repelled that penalty – the Al Hilal winger climbed to three in the World Cup in all, moving alongside Sami Al Jaber as his country’s standout scorer at the global finals.

Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard shouts instructions to his players against Mexico. AFP

Meanwhile, Al Owais, Mohammed Kanno, Hassan Tambakti and Saud Abdulhamid are just a few that depart Doha with reputations significantly enhanced.

Deep inside Lusail Stadium in the early hours of Thursday, Renard reflected on what had gone before, and reached still for the positives.

“We did our best and we will not forget the work we did together,” he said. “I am proud to work with the team and the players, but we did not deserve to win today.”

Arguably, on the evidence of the three matches, Saudi did not deserve to go home so soon. But they will surely come again, with the 2023 Asian Cup an obvious and attainable next objective. Renard, in theory, will be there for that, and for the 2026 World Cup as well, having signed a contract to 2027.

No doubt, both he and his team will be better for their Qatar experience.

Updated: December 01, 2022, 2:14 PM