Salem Al Dawsari, Saudi Arabia’s hero from the first game, facing Wojciech Szczesny from the spot. A whole nation in expectation, let alone the thousands of his countrymen who’d packed the Education City Stadium, and he was tasked with the delivery. Saudi Arabia had fallen behind just moments earlier to Poland. Here was their moment to restore parity and fight it out in the second half.
Piotr Zielinski had fired Poland ahead in the 39th minute, getting onto the end of Robert Lewandowski’s cutback from the right of the six-yard box before giving Saudi Arabia goalkeeper Mohammed Al Owais no chance with a shot that arrowed in. Poland, though, wasted no time in giving Saudi Arabia the chance to get back when Krystian Bielik brought down Saleh Al Shehri in the box. The referee had initially waved for play to continue but had a rethink after the VAR intervened. And as he pointed to the spot, the noise was back up.
This had been a riveting contest, breathless from the start. The Saudis had been pressing for the opening goal but were chasing the game now. Victory here would send them through to the final 16. It’s been promised land for them for the last several editions. The last time they were there was 1994. But then never before had an Asian team managed to win against Argentina at the World Cup. Saudis will forever have that slice of history. Al Dawsari it was whose stunning goal had seen them open their campaign in Qatar with a 2-1 victory against Lionel Messi’s star-studded selection.
Belief has been coursing through their veins since then; Herve Renard’s powerful pep talk at half-time in that game with Saudis trailing 1-0 having gone viral. But here was Al Dawsari, tasked with finding the back of the net from 12 yards against an accomplished penalty stopper in Szczesny. Saudi fans, a lot of them having arrived buses emblazoned with ‘Giddam’; a unified visual identity app that means no retreat from the mission in Arabic, were on their feet.
But Al Dawsari’s penalty was weak, his stutter before it was telling of the pressure he had on his shoulders. Szczesny dived to his right and was then quick to his feet to deny Mohamed Al Burayk. Renard now needed another powerful speech to stir up his side.
The Saudis came back on with purpose, laying siege to the Poland goal but the finishing was wasteful. And as they came forward, they left spaces behind for Poland to exploit. Poland were denied twice by the width of the goal frame in the space of three minutes past the hour mark. First Arkadiusz Milik saw his diving header thunder off the bar and then Al Owais deflected Lewandowski’s shot onto the post.
Poland were threatening and the goal to seal this came eight minutes from time; Lewandowski finally breaking his World Cup duck in his fifth game at the game’s grandest stage. The Polish talisman, one of the most feared strikers in the world, probably won’t get an easier one than that. Abdulelah Al Malik, at the centre of the Saudi Arabian box, took his eyes off the ball as he received a pass from Ali Ali Bulayhi and Lewandowski, who’d missed a penalty in Poland’s opening game against Mexico, didn’t blink. Al Owais had no chance.
As the clock trickled down, the noise also died down. The game was bubbling with anticipation when Renard’s men had stepped onto the pitch; the stands a sea of green and white with a few specks of red. Thousands of their countrymen have descended into bordering Qatar and here they were decked up in their national colours, waving their national flag. The lingering feeling among them being what could’ve been had Al Dawsari converted.
It was a small section of those in red celebrating in the end; the 2-0 win increasing Poland’s chances of making it through from Group ‘C’ with their final game coming against Argentina. For Saudi Arabia, the euphoria has died down quickly. They now need to regroup for Mexico.