Doha, Qatar – As the announcer blared the names of the Saudi players one by one – to loud cheers in the Lusail stadium – a distinctive pattern emerged.
Of the 11 players lined up to face Argentina on Tuesday, nine came from Saudi champions Al Hilal – a rare occurrence for a modern football world cup.
In addition, two of the five substitutes who entered the field for the Green Falcons also play for the same club.
And crucially, Saleh al-Shehri and Salem al-Dawsari – the scorers of both Saudi Arabia’s goals in the historic clash against Lionel Messi-led Argentina – are also Al Hilal players.
Who are Al Hilal?
Founded in 1957, Riyadh-based Al Hilal is the most successful team in the kingdom and Asia, drawing big names from home and abroad.
In June, the team nicknamed the Blue Waves was crowned champions of the Saudi Pro League for the 18th time.
Their squad included Nigerian international and former Watford and Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo, who scored the two decisive goals in the last game of the season that helped them clinch the title.
Since the foundation of the top Saudi league in 1976, Al Hilal is one of only four teams to have competed every season.
They have also won the Crown Prince Cup, the oldest domestic football competition in the kingdom, a record 13 times.
And last year, Al Hilal became the first club to win four Asia Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League titles. They have also won the Asia Cup Winners Cup and the Asian Super Cup twice.
Is Al Hilal’s success good for the Green Falcons?
In international football, players who are busy with club duties hardly get time to train with their national teammates and develop a good understanding of each other’s movements on the pitch.
Leading up to the World Cup, the first to be played at this time of year, many players joined their national teams just days before the 32-team global tournament kicked off on November 18.
Managers who spent months preparing had little time to put their final stamp on their teams or adequately assess their players.
But for the Saudis it was a different story.
Eleven of the players who enter the field against Argentina train with each other every day. And in a rather interesting twist, these footballers are all coached at Al Hilal by an Argentinian: Ramón Díaz, an experienced manager who has been in charge of several teams in his home country, as well as the Paraguay national team.
Apart from the fact that almost all of their starting eleven comes from one team, the Saudi national team has a coach who has made a name for himself by turning unpredictable teams into killers of giants.
Frenchman Herve Renard, 54, burst onto the international stage in 2012 when he led Zambia to the Africa Cup of Nations title for the first time, beating an Ivory Coast team in the final that included English Premier League legends Didier Drogba and the brothers Yaya and Kolo Touré.
A powerful motivator, Renard then headed to Ivory Coast where he led them to the continental trophy before setting up camp in Rabat. He then guided Morocco to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the North Africans’ first time in 20 years to qualify for the tournament.
Saudi Arabia are next in Saturday’s World Cup action against Poland, looking for a win that will take them to the next stage. And with a group of players who have trained together for so long and a coach who has mastered the art of over-achievement, the Green Falcons can hope to reach new heights.