The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saudi World Cup win over Argentina unites divided Mideast in celebration

Saudi Arabia's fans celebrate their victory after the World Cup group C soccer match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at the Lusail Stadium in Lusail, Qatar, on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

BEIRUT — The shock that reverberated around the world when Saudi Arabia beat Argentina in Tuesday’s World Cup upset quickly turned to a wave of euphoric joy not just in the kingdom, but across the region.

The 2-1 score was celebrated by Muslims and Arabs everywhere as a win for them. Across the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia and the Middle East, people found pride and joy in the Saudi underdog beating a famously much stronger team.

The Arab world in particular witnessed a rare moment of shared ecstasy. The fragmented region is brimming with avid, obsession-level soccer fans who are particularly enamored with South American teams. And now they had just watched the incredible spectacle of one of their own nations beating the team whose jerseys are must-have fashion items for their children.

Saudi Arabia shocks Argentina with a World Cup upset for the history books

Hend Amry, a popular Muslim voice on Twitter, noted how the win was being celebrated by Arabs “regardless of regional politics.”

“In fact I’d say this [Saudi] win will have done more for regional unity than if the host country won its game — now there’s regional buy-in, vested interest and identification of national pride with a tournament hosted by a rival,” she wrote.

“This win was an opportunity to remember why football is such a dynamic force in the Middle East,” Amry told The Washington Post. “It has the power to bring people [together] from different nations and across different political contexts like nothing else. And when that unbelievable goal clinched a historic win for KSA, Qatar’s World Cup was truly celebrated as the Arab world’s World Cup,” she said, using an abbreviation for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

She also noted that since their reconciliation, Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be better described as “former” rivals.

In a shocking upset victory, Saudi Arabia beat heavily favored Argentina 2-1 in a Nov. 22 group stage game at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. (Video: The Washington Post)

Emotions ran especially high around the Persian Gulf after Qatar’s ruler, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, was filmed waving the Saudi flag around his shoulders — unimaginable just a few years ago in 2017, when a Saudi-led blockade severed diplomatic relations and transport links with Qatar. The air, land and sea blockade was only lifted in January 2021.

People tweeted the hashtag “Our Gulf is one” alongside photos of the two countries’ leaders, among other images, including a clip of an interview with goalkeeper Mohammed al-Owais, who said: “Today, as Arabs, we are playing on our land, and among our fans. This gives you an advantage on our opponents, whoever they may be.”

In Egypt, a popular news website sent an emailed newsletter titled “Good on ya, Saudi,” telling its subscribers that today they are “working with big grins on our faces after Saudi’s shock 2-1 victory against Argentina in the first of today’s World Cup matches.”

In Lebanon, a journalist with Al Mayadeen, a news channel whose leanings are generally anti-Saudi, tweeted about the performance of the Saudi goalkeeper, saying he was “practically defending the Kaaba, not the goal posts,” referring to the sacred building revered by all Muslims, located in the heart of the holy city of Mecca.

Saudi social media, however, was especially joyous. Many public figures, including religious leaders, were quick to ascribe the win to the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler, in addition to thanking his father, King Salman.

But the real celebrities were the team members themselves, especially the goalkeeper. Saudis posted their photos alongside hashtags such as “Our Falcons are our pride” and “Our green ahead of all.”

Fan videos of player Salem al-Dawsari scoring the winning goal at the 53-minute mark peppered Saudi social media accounts, overlaid with love ballads and live commentary from Arab soccer announcers — many of whom are celebrities in their own right, famous for their impressively overwrought prose and explosive energy.

Turki al-Sheikh, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority and a close adviser to the crown prince, had tweeted a photo two days before the match of Argentine fans, hands half-covering their faces as they nervously watched a game. “Soon,” the caption read.

After the Saudi upset, he replied to his previous tweet pointing out his prediction, and he congratulated the team, the crown prince and others including “the great Saudi people.” He also announced free access for the remainder of the day to carnivals and recreational complexes in Riyadh such as Winter Wonderland and Boulevard World.

It was subsequently announced that Wednesday will be a public holiday in Saudi Arabia.

Siobhán O’Grady in Cairo contributed to this report.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.

Loading...