Brilliant 12th man just fails to make up for key absentees as Saudi Arabia suffer FIFA World Cup elimination at the hands of Mexico

The Saudi Arabia players acknowledge their supporters after a 2-1 loss to Mexico on Wednesday eliminated them from the 2022 FIFA World Cup group stage. EPA/Neil Hall

LUSAIL, Qatar -- Heading into Wednesday's FIFA World Cup Group C decider against Mexico, Saudi Arabia were missing a host of key players.

Inspirational captain Salman Al-Faraj had been ruled out for the rest of the tournament from a blow suffered in their first game, rampaging fullbacks Yasser Al-Shahrani and Mohammed Al-Breik were both also missing through injury, while midfield enforcer Abdullelah Al-Malki was suspended.

It forced Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard to ring the changes but it initially looked as though the one person that could prove pivotal was the one that had been the most consistent all tournament long (perhaps with the exception of goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais) -- their 12th man, the Green Falcons faithful.

Ultimately, and unfortunately for the Saudi Arabia cause, there was only so much they could do from the stands.

On the field, the missing personnel proved telling as Mexico slowly but surely gained control of proceedings at Lusail Iconic Stadium before two goals in quick succession shortly after halftime from Henry Martin and Luis Chavez sealed a 2-1 win for El Tri and condemned the Green Falcons to a group-stage elimination despite having started the campaign so brightly with a come-from-behind win over Argentina.

It certainly was not for lack of trying from the Saudi Arabia supporters who, with the shortest of travelling distances of all the 31 visiting teams, turned up in Doha in the tens of thousands and emerged as one of the most passionate fans at the tournament.

Even with the Mexican supporters no slouches themselves when it comes to the noise stakes, Wednesday's tie might as well have been a home game for Saudi Arabia in Jeddah or Riyadh.

From the moment the Saudi Arabia starting XI was announced in the stadium, each name was greeted with a deafening roar.

Be it Mohamed Kanno's freekick early on that whistled just wide of the top corner to Al-Owais racing off his line to halt an impending Mexico attack, every positive Saudi Arabia moment was loudly applauded and cheered.

Even the unconvincing clearances and the tame attempts at goal.

Then it was Mexico's turn to make some noise of their own.

First, when a corner two minutes after the restart was flicked on by Cesar Montes into the six-yard box for Martin to sweep home from close range, before Chavez had even the Saudi Arabia fans applauding with a stunning 35-yard freekick just five minutes after.

As the game entered its closing stages, the reality began to dawn on the Saudi Arabia faithful that this would not be like in 1994, when they advanced to the knockout round in their World Cup debut.

Still, they continued to encourage the players even as the situation got increasingly futile.

And, as if they were aware that their supporters deserved to unleash one final almighty roar, Saudi Arabia gave them one last magical moment to remember from their Qatar 2022 adventure -- as Salem Al-Dawsari cleverly combined with Hattan Bahebri to break free inside the opposition area before beating Guillermo Ochoa with a neat finish.

Saudi Arabia's involvement in football on the bigger stage has come under scrutiny, especially with last year's takeover of Premier League outfit Newcastle that involved Public Investment Fund -- the country's sovereign wealth fund -- as the 80% majority shareholder.

For all that controversy off the field, Saudi Arabia have used the World Cup to give a thoroughly positive account of themselves on it.

Both in terms of their football, where they have matched it with - and even beaten -- some of the best teams in the world, as well as their supporters -- who have emphatically shown that the game is as fervently supported in these parts of the globe as they are elsewhere on the planet.