Saudi Arabia has said Wednesday will be a national holiday as, on the Jeddah Corniche by the Red Sea, in the heart of the capital Riyadh and in towns and villages across the country, its seismic 2-1 World Cup win over Lionel Messi’s Argentina was celebrated as a coming of age.
The national football side’s remarkable victory was being seen as both a triumph on the pitch and a huge moment on the global sports stage, where the regional power has long sought a place in the spotlight.
Outsiders against an Argentine team on a 36-match winning streak surely delivered that and, on Tuesday afternoon and evening, it was all that mattered to Saudi leaders and the fans who circled public squares in convoys of cars, waving the country’s green flag and proclaiming a new era of international football.
The public holiday will be for all state employees “and the private sector, and male and female students in all educational stages”, the government announced on Tuesday evening.
“We are so happy about the result. It was an exceptional match from our falcons,” said Ghassan Alwan, 42, marketing director at the Saudi ministry of housing. “Our faith in our players was in the right place. We wrote history tonight.”
“Incredible, massive, amazing, fantastic,” added Abdulrahman Abed, a sports editor. “Congratulations to everyone. This means a lot to every Saudi. This will give a huge boost to every Arabic team in the World Cup.”
Euphoria reached the inner circle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was pictured embracing his brothers after the full-time whistle, as well as sports cafes and public parks across the country.
Universities were given the afternoon off for students to watch the game. City streets were almost abandoned. Women joined men in many cafes and restaurants – a new phenomenon in the desert kingdom – to take in the most unlikely of victories.
“What an amazing win for the Saudi national team,” said Adel Al-Akeely, a Riyadh doctor. “There’s a lot that’s been changing in our country, many new achievements and an ambitious drive to become the best that we can be. Moments like this materialise these changes and remind you of how proud we are of our youth.
Saudis have long bristled at the notion that a love of sports and a keenness to attract global events amounted to image laundering, with many sports fans insisting that they too wanted to experience international competition and pitch their national teams into the mix.
Ahead of the match, Prince Mohammed told the national team: “All I want to tell you is stay relaxed, play your game and do your thing.” Few believed that this was just another game, however. In a country battered by criticism over human rights and geopolitical positions, this was a nation-building moment, a chance to turn a political tide.