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A Saudi Win on the World Cup Rings Out Across the Arab World

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Though Saudi Arabia has spent a whole lot of hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent times to accumulate a worldwide sports presence — securing the rights to a Formula 1 grand prix, investing through its sovereign wealth fund within the English Premier League team Newcastle United and backing the breakaway LIV Golf tour — it stays a minor, if regular, presence on the World Cup stage.

Updated 

Nov. 22, 2022, 1:45 p.m. ET

Soccer, though, is a degree of pride. Saudi Arabia’s domestic soccer culture is passionate and organic, and its best club teams, a number of the strongest in Asia, attract considerable crowds and carry devoted, and noisy, followings.

The variety of fans in attendance in Lusail reflected that. The Saudi authorities have eased overland travel restrictions to permit fans to attend the World Cup, and the country’s tourism minister said before the tournament that there can be 240 flights per week between the dominion and Qatar, versus the more usual six.

Ibrahim al-Kassim, the secretary general of the Saudi soccer federation, had promised that the country would send enough fans “to exceed half of the capability of the stadium in each match.”

Not all of them, though, were particularly accustomed to the team they were watching. “I don’t really watch Saudi soccer,” said Ali Al Jubar, a fan who had made the two-hour journey from the border by bus. His interest, he said, is mostly in European teams, particularly Manchester City and Liverpool. “But that is the largest result for Saudi Arabia,” he said.

The importance of the victory — the best in Saudi history and prone to be remembered as one of the crucial startling results the World Cup has seen — might be gauged by the response. In addition to Saudi fans sharing memes of Messi as a roasted goat — a play on his (contested) status as soccer’s Best Of All Time — the official media of the Two Holy Mosques, Haramain Sharifain, posted a message on Twitter with the country’s flag and a green heart.

Amid all of the euphoria, Hervé Renard, the team’s well-traveled French coach, was doing his best to stay calm.

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