Saudi fans delirious with joy after Argentina upset but they spare a thought for Messi

When Abdullah and Saad undertook their 20-hour journey from Jeddah on the edge of the Red Sea to Doha on the shores of the Persian Gulf in their wind-battered land-cruiser, all they yearned was to watch Lionel Messi play. What unfolded at the Lusail Stadium was beyond hope and belief. “Never, not at all. We were expecting to be thrashed, but it would not hurt because it was Argentina,” says Abdullah. In fact, they went to the stadium wrapped in Messi’s “original” jersey under the Saudi Arabian flag. “He is the biggest star in our country.”

When Messi scored the first goal, they went delirious. A wall of green swayed and heaved. “When he scored the goal we hugged the Argentina supporter sitting next to us and screamed and cheered.”

The only wish, a secret wish, was that Saudi Arabia should not lose badly, their default destiny in so many other World Cups. What unpacked in the second half transported them to a dream world, “We could not believe it. We thought it was all a dream,” he says.

There is a beautiful Arabic word for dream ‘hulm’, that Abdullah keeps repeating. The day before they were a butt of the jokes. In metros and buses, Argentina’s fans would banter at them: “Gonna lose by eight goals? Or 10. Get ready,” The Saudi fans would play along, probably resigned to the fate that they would eventually lose badly. They did not pay back in kind, for Saad says it is not “in their culture to laugh at others misfortunes.”

But their phones have not stopped ringing since last afternoon. “Everyone wants us to describe the goal, everyone wants to know what it felt like. I tell them I don’t remember the goal. Everything happened so fast. We even forgot to take the picture. But we will treasure the ticket forever,” he says.

Outside the stadium, they were greeted by thousands of Saudi fans and danced their way back to the metro station. An estimated 10,000 fans had crossed the border, more by road than air. Mostly, they remain indoors, but the day after the defeat they were the most ubiquitous group of fans. “And even if we go out for breakfast, we carry our flags with us,” Abdullah chimes in. The sight of Saudi fans with flags as long as they are tied to their neck is a common sight. There is an extra swagger to their stride, and their face still glows with the joy of Tuesday.

Saad and Abdullah were rushing to Souq Waqif, the old town, where they would meet their friends and have a lavish lunch at a Saudi hotel. “Yesterday, all of them were packed. We could not get into any. But today we can peacefully enjoy the meal,” says Saad. But they would have just the topic of discussion, Tuesday’s game.

Back in Saudi Arabia, Wednesday was declared a public holiday. Fans went so delirious that some broke the doors and some ran like madmen in the streets. Salem Aldawsari, the scorer of one the greatest football goals, became an overnight cult hero. “He is our most famous player, our best in the team. But now he will become our greatest,” he says. His jerseys now will be sold out as briskly as Messi’s would.

The win also marked a defining moment in the tricky geopolitics of the Middle East. Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, tweeted congratulations. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani briefly held the Saudi flag, five years after Saudi had boycotted Qatar.

Contrastingly, the usually exuberant Argentina fans were glum-faced, usually reclining to the corner of the metro, lost for words and smiles, evading stares and talks. The rest of the Latin American ilk spared no chance to tease and taunt them. Whenever they saw an Argentine, they would start chanting Messi’s name, or ask them: “Como estas, Messi (how is Messi)?” often followed by “le deseo feliz recuperacion (wish him happy recovery!)” Brazil football’s twitter account promptly put the crying Argentina flag on their page.

Political undertones were weaved into the bashing too. “Socialism in Argentina has shattered the behaviour of its citizens to such an extent that they lost to Saudi Arabia in the cup. What you get with socialism/communism is a wasteland,” tweeted Argentina’s congressman Bibo Nunes.
But Saudis are restrained in making fun of the gutted Argentina fans. “We wanted to beat a big team, but not Argentina because we love Messi,” says Abdullah.

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