LUSAIL, Qatar (AP) — Overjoyed fans erupted in celebration around the Arab world after Saudi Arabia's shocking win over Argentina at the World Cup on Tuesday.
After one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's history, fans flooded the streets outside Lusail Stadium waving green and white Saudi flags. Then they entered a nearby subway station chanting, singing — and even hugging Argentina fans.
Many were simply incredulous after the 2-1 comeback victory over Argentina, which won the World Cup twice in 1978 and 1986. And Argentina is one of the favorites this time — or it was until Tuesday — and also won the South American championship last year.
“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.
“I thought a draw would be fantastic against this team,” Alharthi added. "They came all the way just to win the World Cup. We did it today and I have to take some time to realize what happened.”
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 only 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.”
On a giant screen near the official fan zone in Doha, a waving Saudi flag appeared among advertisements every few moments, flashing the message: “Congratulations.”
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.
“One for the books,” Saudi Arabia coach Hervé Renard said. “Sometimes things are completely crazy.”
Goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais, who made two key saves late in the game to preserve the win on Tuesday at Lusail Stadium north of Doha, 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. I felt we were especially good in the last minutes because we secured our three points."
Not just in the last minutes. 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.
Stephen Wade, The Associated Press