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At the Saudi-Qatari border, calm gives way to giddy World Cup excitement

Saudi Arabia fans cheer for their team during Saturday's match vs. Poland. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

ABU SAMRA, Qatar — Stand at the last roundabout on the southwest edge of Qatar, get yourself a sliver of shade from a kindly road sign in the blinding 88 degrees, notice the Persian Gulf over there, stare out at the vast sands dotted with some rare and rugged vegetation.

It’s one of the world’s most silent places — and it’s sort of a mirage.

The only land border Qatar has, a stretch just 54 miles long, has seen ample activity of late, even as the activity has been orderly. There’s a convoy of buses on one side (Saudi Arabia) coming to meet an armada of buses on the other (Qatar). There’s a system in place wherein droves of Saudi soccer fans arrive and go to a big lot down yonder, whereupon the Qatari buses come from a big lot and through the roundabout to collect them.

They head about an hour or an hour-and-change away around the capital and World Cup hub of Doha.

Nayef al-Juhani, a 34-year-old biomedical engineer, left Riyadh, the Saudi capital, at 6:30 a.m. Saturday on a bus filled with Saudi fans but also some foreigners who lived in the kingdom, he said. Another bus took them on the 45-minute trip from the border to the site of the match, arriving at Education City Stadium about an hour before kickoff.

“I’m stressed,” he said Saturday before Saudi Arabia’s second match, a 2-0 loss to Poland. “Now all the fans have high expectations. It will put the players under pressure.”

Fans from Saudi Arabia, population about 35 million in an area slightly more than one-fifth the size of the United States, long had plans to come to Qatar, population about 2.9 million in an area slightly smaller than Connecticut. The Saudi team long since lost just once in 18 matches of Asian qualifying to reach the World Cup for the sixth time since debuting at United States 1994. The Qatari Interior Ministry knew it had to stave off excessive congestion at this most compact of the 22 World Cups to date, so it gouged a charge of 5,000 Qatari riyals ($1,373 U.S.) for bringing one’s car.

World Cup tiebreakers and advancement scenarios, explained

That’s a doozy of a parking meter, so the Saudis one encounters here at the grocery store or the apartment complex speak of two ways of arriving: bus and plane.

The latter was the method for a man on a bus with his two young sons Tuesday midday. With Doha and Riyadh only 300 miles apart, his flight took about the same amount of time as it did for maneuvering on land than for the rest of it, he said. He rode a bus from a stadium parking lot to Lusail Stadium, and some of the Saudis on the bus seemed eager to support their national team, yes, but also to see the global citizen Lionel Messi of Argentina in presumably his final World Cup.

Then Tuesday afternoon hit. Then instead of getting the 1-0 or 2-0 loss Saudi fans and all others might have found respectable, they got arguably the greatest upset in World Cup history, a 2-1 win over Argentina. It changed forever the meaning of their World Cup and gave Saudi fans an unmistakable joy as they walked through downtown with their green flag, even if it didn’t necessarily change the tenor at the border, with the desert silence and the buses going through.

There’s not much bustle at the border that has helped define this World Cup. There’s the Persian Gulf with small, sleek fish darting around its shallow portions, with Saudi Arabia visible on the other side and a scruffy shoreline up to a major Qatari resort a few miles inland. There’s a gas station — Petrol Station #20 — which is fitting given it embodies the means through which the World Cup got here (alongside natural gas). There’s a pretty little mosque beside the gas station, then a mini-mini-mall with a coffee place, an immaculate little pharmacy and a small restaurant called Golden Spoon.

In the Golden Spoon, about a dozen men either eat, wait for food or serve it, with chatter ongoing in Hindi, Arabic and the occasional Malayalam. A man gives his seat to a foreign traveler as people often do around this region. There are the foodstuffs familiar in the region — fruits for making juices, shelves with Nescafe and Lipton and cans of evaporated milk. Two men behind the counter, both from India as are about 700,000 residents here (next to about 300,000 Qatari citizens), serve rice and chicken to guest workers whose faces show the morning’s work in the sun.

World Cup schedule, standings and groups

There’s not any feel of the World Cup, but through this quiet corner the Saudis came, past the signs for gate-pass issuing and agriculture and veterinary quarantine. They passed the large replicas of soccer balls in the highway median painted with the colors of the 32 countries. They passed the glam billboards advertising credit cards and sandy fields of camels. They reached the Education City complex, and they helped give a match that might have gone unnoticed in some corners of Earth — Saudi Arabia vs. Poland — a buzz unique to this World Cup.

Paths to the stadiums filled with Saudi green, including women in black abayas carrying the green national flags. Saudi fans stared or leaned from car windows. A bus trying to get two miles to the stadium might have taken an hour to do so, wedged for a while between the Range Rovers and Land Cruisers.

The Saudi government, Adel Zahrani said, had given out 5,000 tickets to the supporters of the various clubs in the Saudi soccer league. Zahrani, 27, who supports dynastic Al Hilal and studies children’s ADHD in Riyadh, said the passage had gone smoothly. “It’s an amazing system from beginning to end,” he said. “Everything, they care about us.”

Things had gone giddy back home. After the Argentina match, which al-Juhani watched at a fan festival in Riyadh, he lost his voice from all the screaming. Since then, all the talk in the capital seemed to be about soccer, even among those who did not watch the sport. Many of the conversations were fanciful. “People are talking about winning the World Cup,” he said.

Fitting the World Cup into tiny Qatar

Then they saw Saudi Arabia fall to Poland as Polish goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny double-stopped a penalty and a rebound, after which Zahrani noted how the Saudis play better against South American teams than against Europeans because they have more South Americans in their domestic league.

“They had too much confidence,” Saleh bin Omayr, 36, said afterward. “We all did. People, they think they will win the World Cup.” He had flown to Qatar from Riyadh after watching the first match on television. “It was crazy,” he said. “It was the best match. It encouraged all the smaller teams,” and he mentioned Japan, which also scored an upset win, over Germany.

And in that, they all had one powerful memory.

“I can’t explain,” Zahrani said. “It’s like a miracle, you know? So we win from not of the top five teams in the world and against Lionel Messi. It’s like a miracle, because our team, it’s not very strong, but it’s also not weak.”

Mohamed al-Saygh, a 28-year-old coffee-shop owner, flew with friends to Saturday’s match from the coastal Saudi city of Jidda. He had planned to attend the Saudi team’s matches even before the win over Argentina, or as he referred to it, “the best game I have ever seen in my life.”

Ibrahim Habadi, a 42-year-old airport ground support equipment manager from Jidda, showed a video of the moment Saudi Arabia finally defeated Argentina. It looked like a whole airport hangar went nuts, and Habadi pointed out planes in the background. “Ohhh,” he said. “It was, the feeling, I cannot express it.”

The closing minute, said Tariq al-Shafloot from Khobar in Eastern Province, had been “the longest minute of my entire life.”

Now that minute could carry on for good, all the way back across the quiet and loud border.

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.

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