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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

In defeat, Saudi fans are united by an unusual foe

Hundreds of young supporters rail against biased commentary as their team crashes out of the World Cup

Saudi Arabian players look dejected after the match. REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Saudi Arabian players look dejected after the match. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Watching the game from Al Masaa in Riyadh, the largest cafe in the world according to Guinness World Records, Saudi Arabian football fans came into the game against Uruguay unsure on how to feel about their national team. But in defeat, many emerged unified against an adversary off the pitch.

Filling many of the establishment's 1,050 seats were young fans still recovering from the distressing 5-0 defeat to Russia in the opening game of World Cup 2018.

An attack from renowned Uruguay striker Luis Suarez in the early minutes caused some of the less committed 'Greens' to shift uncomfortably in their seats, but they breathed a collective sigh of relief as the effort went wide.

But by the 22nd minute their worst fears were realised when Suarez slotted home from close range after a poorly defended corner. Paradoxically, it lessened the tension in the cafe, with nerviness giving way to relief and the hopes of winning being replaced by thoughts of how to avoid another thrashing.

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Centurion Suarez strikes for Uruguay to send Saudi Arabia and Egypt out of 2018 World Cup

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"Look, no one wants or even thinks we're going to win the World Cup. Right? But we don't want to be embarrassed," said AK, 23.

Over the course of the game the Saudi fans' jaded acceptance lifted when their team started to pull together some good attacks. Their emotions took over, with several catching themselves mid-spurt from their seats following another missed chance.

Among the most prominent voices in the sprawling cafe was the commentator blaring through the speaker system. In lulls of the game, he would launch into monologues ranging from motivational speeches on Arab strength and identity to overzealous tirades into the deep psyche of the Saudi Arabian team's crisis of confidence.

It was not known whose commentary it was. Those watching the match in Saudi Arabia are tuned into the BeoutQ's broadcast, which is suspected of streaming the matches from several channels – including the Qatari-owned beIN Sports.

It was always expected to be awkward. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, competing in the World Cup, cut relations last year with Qatar, who own the exclusive rights to broadcasting the tournament throughout the Middle East.

After their defeat to hosts Russia in the opening match, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation lodged an official complaint to Fifa over beIN Sports’ coverage, which it says includes "insulting" political messages aimed at the kingdom and its leadership.

As the game went on, however, the commentary became increasingly more critical of Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s shortcomings.

The once crestfallen mood of the cafe turned as Saudi fans began banding together against a seemingly more offensive commentator.

The body language in unison, they began berating the voiceover late into the second half when he launched a tangential lecture perceived as another criticism of the Saudi team.

"Another one of these," a youth shouted at the screen, to be met with laughs from his surrounding countrymen.

Although they reached the final whistle defeated, the Saudi Arabian fans were somehow committed to supporting their team in their criticism.

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