This year’s World Cup has been full of surprises, but the improbability of the football tournament has been even more astounding.
It starts with the location: Qatar. In the late 2000s, political leaders in every major country were desperate to host marquee sports competitions. The peak of the sports bidding frenzy came in 2005 when notable cities–London, Paris, Madrid, New York, and Moscow–fought it out tooth and claw to host the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.
Despite this, in December of 2010, then FIFA president Sepp Blatter opened an envelope in Zurich, Switzerland, shocking the football scene. The 2022 World Cup, he announced, would be held in the tiny dot of Qatar in the 105-degree desert, in the middle of summer. World Cups were thought of being for big countries. Yet, the world’s largest sporting event would be held in a country smaller than Connecticut and with a population of Chicago.
It took five years of uproar for FIFA to come to its senses. But instead of moving the World Cup away from Qatar, it simply moved the tournament away from summer. This is how football wound up here, disrupting the biggest professional leagues halfway through their calendars to cram in the first ever November-December World Cup.
The game results were just as unlikely.
Four-time World Cup winner Germany and their loss against Japan in their first Group E match of Qatar 2022 may well go down as one of the most significant results in the nation’s history. Having fallen at the first stage of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, going out in the group stage of a second consecutive World Cup was unthinkable.
While a matchup against Japan wasn’t seen as an easy game, Germany’s 2-1 loss and subsequent exit from the tournament before the round of 16 sent shockwaves around the country.
The first half against Japan went largely to plan for the Germans who went ahead through a 33rd-minute penalty from İlkay Gündoğan. But they had no answer to Japan’s energy in the second half, as goals from Doan Ritsu and Asano Takuma left the 2014 world champions in shambles.
The difference for Germany was that the 2014 champions seemed to be cruising for so much of the match. When İlkay Gündoğan scored the opening goal in the 33rd minute, their World Cup campaign seemed to be off and running. The Germans appeared ready to make another deep run, but Japan vanquished these hopes with a shocking result.
But the biggest upset came in one of the opening games.
The Argentinian national team had a 36-game unbeaten streak. Their run, which began in 2019, had seen the Argentina national side win Copa America 2021, beating Brazil 1-0 on their home soil, and also clinch a berth to the 2022 World Cup. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was ranked 51st in the world, dead last in the group with no expectations of a World Cup run.
The game quickly started with a 10th-minute penalty from captain Lionel Messi, looking to cap a great career by winning the tournament at the fifth attempt. But Argentina failed to build on their first-half dominance, having three further goals, one for Messi and two for Lautaro Martinez, ruled as offside. This opened the door for the Saudi comeback.
First Saleh Al-Shehri surged past Cristian Romero and clipped a left-footed shot into the far corner. Soon after Salem Al-Dawsari spun around, swerved away from a defender, and curled in a brilliant effort from the left edge of the area into the top-right corner.
Argentina tried to find a way back into the game, but Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Owais made a series of saves from Nicolas Tagliafico, Messi, and Julian Alvarez to seal one of the most remarkable results in World Cup history.
After Saudi Arabia’s victory, King Salman declared the next day a national holiday. The Saudi victory brought euphoria not just to Saudis, but also to the entire region, with social media users from other Arab countries sharing videos of their reactions to the Saudi national team victory.
This World Cup has been full of upsets, good and bad. For many, this tournament, full of uncertainty, has been one of the most surprising of all. And of course, the ultimate question still remains: who will take the Cup home?