No, Saudi Arabia’s shocking win against tournament favorite Argentina on Tuesday was not the greatest upset in the history of the World Cup. In 1950, tournament host Brazil took the field against Uruguay at Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro in front of what is still the largest crowd ever to witness a soccer game. What followed was a national disgrace so profound and enduring that it still has its own nickname: The Maracanazo, the “Maracanã smash,” a 2-1 defeat that handed the world championship to Brazil’s South American rivals and triggered multiple suicides inside the stadium itself. A soccer game can only take on the proportions of tragedy within a society that really, truly cares about the game, as a matter of death. Brazil would go on capture the World Cup in 1958 and 1962, making them the tournament’s last repeat champion.
Could Saudi Arabia’s triumph be looked back on as a hinge moment in the history of the sport, the kind of event that will be remembered after all of its participants are dead? That seems entirely possible. Argentina boasted a team full of elite European club players and a 36-game unbeaten streak; in contrast, every player on the Saudi roster had played only inside the kingdom. Argentina has Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest footballer in history. Saudi doesn't have a single player anyone had really heard of before Tuesday afternoon. The odds of victory were in fact impossibly long. Still, there is a difference between an upset and an earthquake—between an astonishment, and a Maracanazo.
The great sports upsets all transcend any imbalance in the sides’ ability. The future of the free world wasn’t in fact at stake when the US beat the USSR in Olympic ice hockey in 1980, but the Miracle on Ice was monumental enough to support even the most treacly claims. The New York Giants’ gut-wrenching defeat of the Brooklyn Dodgers in a one-game playoff in 1951 seemed to sum up so much about America’s immediate post-war years that it became the framing device for a 900-page Don DiLillo novel. Like the Maracanazo, Colombia’s agonizing loss to the US in the 1994 World Cup left behind a string of dead bodies, most notably that of Andres Escobar, who committed the game-deciding own-goal. The aftermath of the match was so brutal that the loss became a kind of turning-point towards something like normalcy, rock-bottom in Colombia’s long drug war.
The Saudi win could well turn out to be another metaphor in waiting—a game that will shoulder hopes and dreams and historical master-narratives vastly out of proportion to the events on the field. Watchers of Middle Eastern politics, which includes hundreds of millions of Middle Easterners themselves, couldn’t help but note the sharp contrast between the Saudi triumph and the Iranian team’s refusal to sing their own national anthem on Monday in protest against the Islamic Republic’s ongoing crackdown on a now two-month long popular uprising. While the Saudis triumphed before thousands of delirious, flag-waving young fans who drove out from the Kingdom to cheer themselves hoarse for the Green Falcons, Qatar’s national team fizzled in its opening fixture against Ecuador just as badly as Iran lost to England. It now seems like Doha spent somewhere around $300 billion to showcase the weakness of its patron and the strength of its Gulf rival.
But reducing sports to their possible political dimension is always more than a little trivializing. People care about sports in part because they are purer and better and more elevating than politics, which is something they have in common with art. The Middle East is soccer-mad but short on real achievements on the international stage—Egypt and Israel are perennial underachievers, the North African teams are scrappy but unproven, and Turkey, the only majority-Muslim nation to make it to a World Cup semi-final, barely thinks of itself as Middle Eastern at all. The Arab teams are particularly disappointing—Egypt's Mohamed Sabry, the greatest player the Arab Middle East ever produced, underwhelmed during his single World Cup appearance, in 2018.
The best players of Arab and North African descent have tended to play for national teams in Europe. And why wouldn’t they? From Syria to Yemen to Afghanistan the region is riven with conflict and dysfunction. The Saudi win is a remarkable home-grown triumph, and a glimmer of what’s possible. Even if they drop their next two matches, and even if Argentina becomes the only team other than the 2010 Spanish squad to win the World Cup after losing its first game, the Saudi stunner is a glimpse of something better in a region badly in need of new models.