Although Saudi Arabia has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to gain a global sporting presence – securing the rights to a Formula 1 grand prix, investing through its sovereign wealth fund in English Premier League team Newcastle United and backing breakaway LIV Golf tour – it remains a minor, albeit regular, presence on the World Cup stage.
Football, however, is a pride. Saudi Arabia’s national football culture is passionate and organic, and its top club teams, among the strongest in Asia, draw huge crowds and have dedicated, vocal fans.
The number of fans present at Lusail reflected this. Saudi authorities have eased overland travel restrictions to allow fans to attend the World Cup, and the country’s tourism minister said ahead of the tournament that there would be 240 flights a week between the kingdom and Qatar, against the usual six.
Ibrahim al-Kassim, the secretary general of the Saudi Football Federation, had promised that the country would send enough supporters “to exceed half the capacity of the stadium in every match”.
However, not all of them were particularly familiar with the team they were watching. “I don’t really watch Saudi football,” said Ali Al Jubar, a fan who had made the two-hour trip from the border by bus. His interest, he said, is usually in European teams, particularly Manchester City and Liverpool. “But this is the biggest result for Saudi Arabia,” he said.
The significance of the win – the biggest in Saudi history and likely to be remembered as one of the most surprising World Cup results – could be gauged by the response. In addition to Saudi fans sharing memes of Messi as a roast goat – a play on his (disputed) status as the best footballer of all time – the official Two Holy Mosques outlet, Haramain Sharifain, posted a message on Twitter with country flag. and a green heart.
Amid all the euphoria, Hervé Renard, the team’s widely traveled French coach, was doing his best to remain calm.
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