Saudi Arabia | Even the de facto ruler of the nation had played down hopes. Wednesday will be a national holiday following a victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina, one of the most unexpected outcomes in Fifa World Cup history.
One of the biggest surprises in the 92-year history of the World Cup was Saudi Arabia’s victory over Argentina on Tuesday. Almost no one in the world of soccer had predicted such an outcome. The Saudis themselves, though, were the most shocked.
Since 1998, the nation had only ever won one game in a World Cup. It does not enlist talents from the top leagues in Western Europe, unlike the World Cup’s established powers. Instead, its players come from the nation’s domestic league, which is not well-known but receives a lot of support. And the Saudis had the highest odds to win the competition when they began: 1,000 to 1.
A National Holiday
Saudi Arabia proclaimed Wednesday a national holiday following the triumph. However, many private firms had already closed and government workers had been given the day off before the game. Hundreds of spectators flocked to watch the match on enormous TV screens at specially scheduled public viewings. They stared in shock as the Saudis overturned Argentina’s early advantage and then raised their fists in celebration following the game-winning goal.
There were cheers audible not only in Saudi Arabia but also in the entire Arab world, which had not witnessed an Arab nation win a match up until Tuesday in this competition, the first World Cup in the Middle East. Public celebrations took place in Egypt, Jordan, and even among the Houthis in Yemen, who are being brutally attacked by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia.
Few had predicted that the Saudis would go past the group stage, much less defeat Argentina and Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player to ever play the sport. Before the team left for Qatar, even Prince Mohammed minimised expectations, telling the athletes to “relax and enjoy the event.” And they did enjoy it.
Fans Going Crazy
As recently as two years ago, when a Saudi-led embargo cut the tiny Qatari peninsula off from its neighbours, tens of thousands of Saudi fans had made the short drive across the border to see the country’s inaugural game at the tournament, though more out of hope than expectation.
For Saudi Arabia, a nation of over 36 million people that did not make sports a national priority until 2016, it was an impressive show. In order to promote local athletes and teams and draw in international competitions, its General Sports Authority announced a $650 million investment in that year. Up until 2017, physical education classes for girls were not available.
Although Saudi Arabia has recently invested hundreds of millions of dollars to establish a global sports presence — securing the rights to a Formula 1 race, investing through its sovereign wealth fund in the English Premier League team Newcastle United, and supporting the independent LIV Golf tour — it still has a minor, if frequent, presence on the World Cup stage.
But soccer is something to be proud of. Domestic soccer in Saudi Arabia is played with fervour and organicity, and the country’s top clubs, some of the best in Asia, draw sizable crowds and have vocal, committed fans.
The Kingdom and Qatar
The amount of spectators in Lusail confirmed that. In order to allow fans to travel overland to the World Cup, the Saudi government has relaxed travel restrictions. Additionally, the country’s tourism minister announced ahead of the event that there would be 240 flights per week between the kingdom and Qatar, up from the more typical six.
The Saudi soccer federation’s secretary general, Ibrahim al-Kassim, had pledged that the nation would send enough spectators “to exceed half the stadium’s capacity in each match.”
However, not all of them had a strong familiarity with the team they were following. “I don’t really watch Saudi soccer,” admitted Ali Al Jubar, a supporter who travelled by bus for two hours from the border. He claimed that he is normally interested in European teams, especially Manchester City and Liverpool. However, he added, “This is the biggest outcome for Saudi Arabia.”
The reaction could be used to determine the significance of the victory, which was the biggest in Saudi history and is likely to be remembered as one of the World Cup’s most unexpected outcomes. The official media of the Two Holy Mosques, Haramain Sharifain, sent a message on Twitter with the nation’s flag and a green heart. Saudi Arabian supporters also shared memes depicting Messi as a roasted goat in reference to his (disputed) title as soccer’s Greatest Of All Time.
Hervé Renard, the team’s well-traveled French coach, was trying his best to maintain composure amidst all the joy.
The stars in the sky “are on the same line sometimes,” he observed. “This will always be with us. Although we are a tiny crew, today all of the Saudi citizens were present. We must consider each of the 35 million of them. This will go down in history.
However, other people seemed much more phlegmatic. One team official seemed to be almost entirely unconcerned when asked to evaluate the significance of the outcome for Saudi soccer, for Saudi Arabia, or for the Arab world as a whole. It’s only 3 points, he explained.