I remember it like it was yesterday. My twin brother and I, all 6 years old, stayed up late at our grandparents’ house in Kolkata, India, to watch Argentina’s opening match of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The South American country was then reigning champion, driven by the inimitable Diego Maradona. Their first game of the tournament, against the unknown Cameroon, would be a formality.
Then Cameroon won, against all odds and logic. My brother and I cried, stunned by our superhero’s fallibility. We were too young to appreciate the seismic significance of Cameroon’s triumph. Until then, the football teams of African countries have often been the target of scorn and ridicule, subject to much latent racism.
“We hate it when European reporters ask us if we eat monkeys and have a witch doctor,” François Omam-Biyik, the winning goalscorer, told reporters after the match. “We are real footballers and we proved that tonight.”
On Tuesday, Argentina again found itself on the receiving end of a historic shock. Their coveted squad, captained by global phenomenon Lionel Messi, fell to a stunning 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia. Yes, Saudi Arabia: the country that repeatedly failed at the World Cup; the country whose most memorable appearance in the tournament was Germany’s 8-0 defeat in 2002; the country that everyone expected would still be whipped two decades later in Qatar.
Instead, encouraged by tens of thousands of Saudi fans who made the short trip across the border, Saudi Arabia has done the unthinkable. Wednesday has already been declared a holiday for the nation to extend its celebrations. The win, my colleagues reported, also marked an unusual moment of pan-Arab unity, with social media in the region awash with gleeful memes applauding the Saudi success.
“They are the South American champions,” said Saudi Arabia coach Hervé Renard, a Frenchman with a significant track record of coaching success in Africa, referring to Argentina winning the Copa America in 2021. “They have fantastic players. But this is football and sometimes things are completely crazy.”
Saudi victory over Argentina unites the divided Middle East in celebration
For Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the defeat of Argentina by the football team is the conclusion of a triumphant moment on the world stage. The controversial royal took pride of place at the opening ceremony of the World Cup. He was spotted there wearing a maroon Qatari scarf during the host nation’s defeat to Ecuador – an act of brotherly support that would have stunned onlookers just a few years ago when Saudi Arabia led a regional boycott and blockade of Qatar. On Tuesday, the crown prince’s enthusiasm for the Qatar World Cup was met by the Qatari emir, who waved a Saudi flag at the stadium as the Saudis secured their victory.
The Crown Prince also repaired other fences. He was all smiles in Bali ahead of the Group of 20 Major Economies leadership summit, welcoming Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He also appeared at the UN climate conference in Egypt and the APEC countries summit in Bangkok. The latest trip marked a recovery in Thai-Saudi relations after a deep freeze caused by a 1989 cinematic jewelry heist carried out by a Thai worker in a Saudi palace, which was mysteriously followed the next year by the murder of three Saudi diplomats in Saudi Arabia. Thailand.
The crown prince has already endured global outcry for his alleged mastermind behind the 2018 kidnapping and gruesome execution of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. In the summer he visited French President Emmanuel Macron and a number of other European leaders. He also received President Biden on his home soil with a punch, an encounter that preposterized Biden’s campaign trail’s proclamation that Riyadh would turn into a “pariah” under his watch. And last week, the Biden administration told a judge to grant sovereign immunity to the crown prince in a civil case over his role in Khashoggi’s murder.
Combined with Riyadh’s enduring influence in global energy markets, the state of affairs shows the strong hand of the youthful crown prince. It also underscores the ongoing difficulties faced by those in Washington who hope to pivot US policy in the region away from the Saudis.
“The United States tried to limit the importance and role of the kingdom regionally and internationally, but found, first, that this goal was unattainable and, second, that it harmed its own interests,” said Abdulaziz al-Sager, president of the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah. Reuters. “So there is a process of American withdrawal from taking negative positions towards the kingdom.”
US declares Saudi crown prince immune from trial over Khashoggi murder
Pictures showed the crown prince cheering the Saudi victory at home in Riyadh. The good vibes in the kingdom will no doubt continue throughout the tournament, with huge crowds of Saudi fans turning up in Qatar. Past precedents suggest that even if Saudi Arabia loses its remaining matches, its stunning dismay at Argentina will be set in stone. The history of the World Cup is full of losing darlings, from the furious North Korean side that captivated the English public in 1966 to Senegal’s debutants in 2002 who defeated France, the former colonial ruler, in their first ever World Cup match.
The Saudis are on track to enjoy a tournament next door, without the increased scrutiny Qatar has endured for hosting the World Cup. But it is unclear how much soft power this Saudi team can muster for their crown prince.
Whatever its unknown players, Saudi Arabia already plays a major role in the global game. Saudi sovereign wealth pulls the strings at Newcastle United, a popular English Premier League club now effectively run by an oil-rich regime that violates human rights. And the crown prince appears poised to make a bid for the 2030 World Cup, drawing the same scorn and criticism Doha did when it won its bid in 2010. signed a lucrative sponsorship deal to promote the Crown Prince’s ‘Vision 2030’ campaign for the kingdom. As revealed so much during the World Cup, it is a sign of the times.