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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Saudi football fans celebrate first win in Russia

The kingdom's footballers beat Egypt 2-1 with their first goals at the 2018 World Cup

A football fan watches the World Cup group game between Saudi Arabia and Egypt at a cafe in Jeddah. Naser Al Wasmi / The National
A football fan watches the World Cup group game between Saudi Arabia and Egypt at a cafe in Jeddah. Naser Al Wasmi / The National

The frantic tone of the commentator ramping up a fierce Saudi attack on Egypt’s goal interrupted Mohammed as he placed the final coal on a shisha belonging to one of Al Nakheel’s regulars.

“It doesn’t matter, does it?” he said, throwing a sidelong glance at the washed out screen.

“I just want a good game,” he told his Saudi customer.

The Saudi Arabian and Egyptian flags flanking the 8-metre screen represented the loyalties in this traditional Arab cafe along Jeddah’s corniche.

Like many of the 50 or so Al Nakheel employees, the shisha master is from Egypt, across the Red Sea from this coastal establishment, but the patrons were mostly local.

Four industrial-sized air-conditioning units insulated those in attendance from the heat and humidity so characteristic of Jeddah. A string upon which the flags of all 32 qualified World Cup teams flickered as they bore the brunt of the cool air blowing into the tent, instilling the makeshift theatre with a certain sportsmanlike spirit.

Nonetheless, aside from those few diehard fans and the dozen or so regulars in for an early start on their daily dose of shisha, the seats of the massive 300-capacity tent set-up for the World Cup were empty at the start of the match.

The attendance was a far cry from that of Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s first two matches.

“Not a single spot, we had to bring in chairs for the other games, but now I think we just wanted more for all the Arab teams. Not a single one made it to the round of 16,” he said.

Mohammed Salah’s beautiful goal in the 20th minute was met with the stifled celebration of the Egyptian employees, cautious not to upset the other Arabs in the coffee shop. Even the Premier League’s top goal-scorer was subdued in his celebration, seemingly in a similar situation.

In the most Arab World Cup since it began, citizens of the four competing nations and Arab football fans are left pondering the reasons behind team’s failure to win a single match.

“It doesn’t look like they want to win. When you see how hungry other teams’ players are for goals, you can tell they are there to win and to make a name for themselves,” Abdullah Waleed said.

A blocked Saudi penalty in the 40th minute drives home his point.

“Our team was doing so well, and they are the winningest in the Asian cup, but here, on the world stage, we expect more from them,” he said.

Minutes later, the referee spots another foul in Egypt’s penalty box.

The newly implemented video review system reinforced the decision to grant the penalty to the green-clad team in the final moments of the first half.

“Maybe it’s this new technology we can blame,” he said jokingly.

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Read more:

World Cup 2018: Day 12 live updates — Egypt face Saudi Arabia

Cuper: Egypt determined to 'bow out of the World Cup in style'

Pizzi vows players 'will make Saudi Arabia proud' against Egypt

In pictures: Salah's pain and brief joy as Egypt beaten by Russia

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But nonetheless, Saudi Arabia score their first goal at the Russian World Cup. Many in the cafe would be happy with the result, making equal the Arab world’s two strongest powers.

Those 20 fans, whose numbers had trebled by halftime, cheered the goal, filling the massive tent with the sound of jubilation.

The goal at the end of half-time seemed to have activated the Saudis in the second half, whose increased attack drew more enthusiasm from the fans, with the majority cheering on even nice passes by the Green Falcons.

“We know they are capable of more, that’s the problem, I don’t know who to blame, maybe it's how they started but we believe in our teams,” said a fan who did not want to be named.

But in the final moments of the second half, the Saudi fans finally get what they have waited for since the start of the World Cup: a goal that leads to a win.

A man who had handed out sheets at the beginning of the match for those watching to place their predictions smiled as he looked over at those who had put down 2-1 as the final score.

“This is at the end of the day football, sometimes you win other times you lose,” said Abdulrazzaq Baksh. “But the important thing is that we love each other."