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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Fans head to UAE to cheer on Saudi Arabia against Russia in first 2018 World Cup match

Suhoor tents seamlessly become World Cup tents as the 2018 tournament gets under way on the last day of Ramadan 

Football fans watch Saudi Arabia and Russia face off in the first World Cup match aired at the Ramadan tent at the Sofitel Corniche hotel in Abu Dhabi. Leslie Pableo for The National 
Football fans watch Saudi Arabia and Russia face off in the first World Cup match aired at the Ramadan tent at the Sofitel Corniche hotel in Abu Dhabi. Leslie Pableo for The National 

As the Fifa World Cup 2018 kicked off with a match between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia, football fans in the UAE were gripped to the action, despite a disappointing 5-0 defeat for the kingdom.

At the World Cup tent at Fairmont The Palm in Dubai, ear-bashing cheers and riotous applause greeted the Gulf team as they entered the pitch.

Mustafa Al Saedi, a 50-year-old Saudi, flew to Dubai three days ago to watch the football match and celebrate Eid.

Pointing happily to the Saudi flag above his table, he said: “It’s a massive achievement for the Saudi team to play at the World Cup. I’m hoping our team will score some goals.

“This is a big event for Saudis. The team has been preparing for the match for months.”

Football fans watch the opening match in the Fairmont Hotel's World Cup Tent in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National
Football fans watch the opening match in the Fairmont Hotel's World Cup Tent in Dubai. Antonie Robertson / The National

Mr Al Saedi broke his fast while watching the match at the World Cup tent.

This year marks Saudi Arabia’s fifth appearance in the World Cup after their first qualification in 1994, and the last time the Saudi team participated was in 2006.

Mr Al Saedi's daughter, Fatima, said she is not interested in football, but this match is one of a kind.

“I am proud of the Saudi team. It does not matter who scores more. What matters to me is that the Saudis are playing in the World Cup,” said the 26-year-old clinical instructor.

With Russia scoring twice in the first half, Ahmed Al Jahni, a 24-year-old Saudi, told The National: “I am a bit disappointed that Russia scored twice. I believe reaching here is a great achievement, but I want my team to score goals.

“I am here to cheer the 'green team' and support my country. I will always support them, regardless of who scores more and wins today.”

Fans cheer on Saudi Arabia, who lost 5-0 to Russia on Thursday. Leslie Pableo for The National 
Fans cheer on Saudi Arabia, who lost 5-0 to Russia on Thursday. Leslie Pableo for The National 

Issa Aghabi, a Jordanian investor, 35, said: “It will be really cool if Saudi wins today’s game. Last time, they lost with a huge gap of scores when they played in the World Cup.”

“Everyone is talking about the Egyptian team this year. I like Egyptian player Mohammed Salah. Let’s see who will win this year,” said Mr Aghabi.

As Saudi Arabia began to concede goals, the screams of 28-year-old Mohammed Abdul Aziz were increasingly heard across the tent.

“I just can’t believe it. I thought the team will perform better this year," he said of his home team. "So many chances to score were missed due to misjudgment by players."

In Abu Dhabi, Haitham Yasin and his friends Saahil Giddebhai and Mohammed Issa had the Marina Mall cinema completely to themselves to watch the opening match of play out on the big screen.

As 16-year-olds, they were too young to join their compatriots in Abu Dhabi’s bars or shisha cafes. But as Saudis, they felt they had an obligation to support their team.

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Read more:

World Cup 2018 opening ceremony — in pictures

Egypt in the World Cup: 'A passion we cannot give up'

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They had bought their VIP tickets minutes before iftar and settled into the top row of seats in time to watch Russia score the first goal.

The only drinks in sight were three slushies that remained untouched until 7.15pm. Inside the chilly mall, there was no call to the prayer to tell them that they could take their iftar. With the commentator’s voice booming through the otherwise empty cinema, the Saudi teenagers kept patiently checking their glowing mobiles.

And in the capital, suhoor tents have been quickly converted into World Cup centres — the dangling crescents and stars have been replaced with footballs and flags of qualifying teams.

At the Sofitel, the Al Barza Ramadan tent had been renamed the Sofitel Football Fanzone and big screens played the match as people enjoyed their iftar.

“We should be partying for the opening of the World Cup but we’re still in the Ramadan mood,” said Saber Belghith, 33. “We’re waiting for Eid and tomorrow will feel like the first day of the World Cup.”

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