LUSAIL – Overjoyed fans erupted in celebration around the Arab world Tuesday after Saudi Arabia’s shocking World Cup win over Argentina.
From Syria and Jordan to Gaza and Qatar — host of this year’s World Cup -- fans basked in Saudi Arabia's achievement, one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.
Immediately after their team’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory, Saudi fans who witnessed the match in person flooded the streets outside Lusail Stadium waving their country’s green and white flags while chanting and singing -- and even hugging distraught Argentina fans.
“I'm speechless," Saudi Arabia fan Sultan Alharthi said. "I can't even explain how much happy I am, because I didn’t expect we will win.
Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attended the match, and at one point wrapped a Saudi flag over his shoulders. The moment, captured in online video and widely shared, would have been unthinkable nearly two years ago when Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations boycotted Qatar over a political dispute.
In northwestern Syria, the war-torn country’s rebel stronghold, residents gathered at cafes cheered and celebrated after the final whistle. It was a pleasant change for the enclave, where millions suffer from frequent airstrikes and poverty.
In the city of Idlib, Ahmad Al-Absi said Saudi Arabia’s victory was a much needed morale boost for Syrians and Arabs across the Middle East, even if it meant seeing his favorite soccer team lose.
“It shows that we have talented people who can achieve things on a global stage,” Al-Absi, an Argentina fan, told The Associated Press. “We’re dreaming of better futures as Arabs, and this morale boosts reminds us that nothing is impossible.”
In the streets of Amman, Jordan, dozens of Saudi nationals and Jordanians celebrated in the streets, carrying Saudi flags or placing them on their cars and blaring their horns.
And in Gaza, Palestinian residents rejoiced, saying they stood with Saudi Arabia in its moment of soccer glory. “They stand with us politically and socially, so these celebrations are sort of reciprocation,” said Gaza resident Abu Khalil.
In Saudi Arabia, King Salman announced a snap public holiday for all workers and students in the kingdom in celebration of the win.
People watching the match at a fan zone in the capital, Riyadh, jumped with joy and cheered as the game ended. Drivers honked their horns in celebration. Saudi authorities also allowed free entry to a state-sponsored sports and entertainment festival.
The gravity of the victory will eventually sink in. Saudi Arabia is a team that had only ever won three World Cup matches in its history prior to Tuesday's game. Argentina, which won the World Cup in 1978 and 1986, is — or was — one of the favorites this year.
“One for the books,” Saudi Arabia coach Hervé Renard said. “Sometimes things are completely crazy.”
Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais, who made two key saves late in the game, was almost subdued at the end, perhaps not grasping the magnitude of the upset.
“I am very happy about this result that we have been able to obtain against this very storied team,” Alowais said solemnly. “We have prepared ourselves. We were 100% ready and hopefully we will have better results in the future."
Despite trailing 1-0 at halftime after a 10th-minute goal from Lionel Messi, perhaps the greatest soccer player of all time, Saleh Alshehri and Salem Aldawsari managed to score a goal each early in the second half.
Then came more than 50 minutes, including added time at the end of the match at the referee's discretion, of holding one of the tournament favorites at bay.
“All the stars aligned for us,” said Renard, who won the African Cup of Nations as coach of Zambia in 2012 and then again with Ivory Coast in 2015.
Renard has has also coached Angola and Morocco, which he guided to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. He took over Saudi Arabia in 2019.
“We made history for Saudi football," Renard said. "It will stay forever. This is the most important. But we also need to think about looking forward because we still have two games that are very very difficult for us.”
Renard said he asked his players to limit the celebration after the game to 20 minutes.
“That’s all,” he said. “But there are still two games — or more.”
They still must face Poland on Saturday and then take on Mexico next Tuesday in Group C. Both are probably still favorites against Saudi Arabia — despite the upset.
He also suggested another possible truth: Messi and Argentina probably underestimated Saudi Arabia, which is only No. 51 in the FIFA ranking. Argentina is No. 3.
“But you know the motivation is not like you are playing Brazil,” he added.
Isabel DeBre and Jon Gambrell in Doha, and Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut, contributed to this report.