Saudi Arabia shocked Argentina in the World Cup on Tuesday with a 2-1 victory over Lionel Messi’s side, prompting an outpouring of Arab pride amidst the first staging of soccer’s top tournament in the Middle East.
It was a sweet moment for host Qatar, which has faced a barrage of criticism over human rights in the conservative Muslim country. Qatar’s emir draped the Saudi flag over his shoulders at the stadium after the match.
“Wow! I have all the feelings right now. We beat Argentina, one of the great teams!” said Saad, a fan from Riyadh who is in Qatar for two weeks and was wearing a green Saudi Falcons scarf around his neck.
“Our guys played so well – everything went right inside the stadium today. It was amazing.”
On his fifth and final quest for the only major trophy to elude him, Messi, 35, scored a 10th minute penalty in a dominant first half display by Argentina during which he and Lautaro Martinez also had three goals disallowed for offside.
But Saudi Arabia, the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament after Ghana, threw caution to the wind at the start of the second half, charging at Argentina’s defence in front of a frenzied 88,012 crowd.
“Thank God, the players were up to it and we wiped them. They were relying on one player, we competed as a team and we wiped them, we are up to it. Watch out for Saudi Arabia because when it hits, it hurts,” said Saudi fan Abdelaziz al-Khwatem.
A Saudi television station showed a long line of cars with veiled women standing in their open sunroofs waving the Saudi flag. Other cars carried celebrating children giving the victory sign.
The entire game was played in an extraordinary atmosphere at the Lusail Stadium, with Argentina’s traditionally massive and raucous following matched by the thousands of Saudis who had come over the border to cheer on their team.
“We were expecting Saudi would be easy and to score five goals against them. But the strategy of the Saudis at the end was not to let us have the ball at all. They made the goals and that was it,” said 21-year-old Argentinian fan Juliana Vega.
CONCERNS FOR TOLERANCE
Before the match kicked off, the issue of tolerance came up at a news conference between the Qatari foreign minister and his American counterpart. Qatar has come under criticism over its treatment of foreign workers and the LGBT+ community.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it was “always concerning” to hear of limits on freedom of expression at World Cup games in Qatar, after FIFA threatened yellow cards for players if they wear armbands with LGBT+ rainbow colours.
“It’s especially so when the expression is for diversity and for inclusion,” said Blinken, who watched the U.S. team’s first match on Monday in Doha and also met with his Qatari counterpart for a U.S.-Qatari strategic dialogue.
Qatar has come under intense pressure in recent years for its position on workers rights and restrictive social laws.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani has said the Gulf Arab state welcomes everyone. “Its doors are open. Let us focus on football and what’s happening on the pitch.”
British foreign minister James Cleverly said on Tuesday he brought up the issues about being a welcoming World Cup host with Qatar during a visit for the start of the tournament, amid reports that fans wearing rainbow clothing had faced problems.
“I’ve just returned from Qatar. We raised the issues of being a welcoming host nation and the Qataris are very keen to do so,” Cleverly told Reuters.
“My duty is to make sure that the English and Welsh fans that are in Qatar to enjoy the football are able to do so: enjoy themselves, be themselves, and be safe and secure whilst they’re doing it.”