Hhalf a mile south of the Saudi Arabian training ground, the silhouettes of two camels move slowly against the late afternoon sun. They carry visitors over the crest of a sand dune whose slopes are marked by the tracks of overland vehicles and SUVs. Below, a giant Chevrolet advertisement offers alternative transportation and a long line of semi-permanent buildings peddles tourist trinkets. This is the gateway to a region Qatar hopes will enchant those wanting a break from football: a nearly empty expanse of undulating sand that covers the south-eastern interior and is being marketed as a playground for outdoor adventurers.
In truth, it hardly resembles a Honeydukes, and that’s how it pleases its temporary residents. The Saudi Football Association quickly snuck in to secure this base at the exclusive Sealine beach resort two and a half years ago. It’s just 40 kilometers from the border with their country and an hour’s drive south of Doha feels cut off from the manic energy of downtown. They knew from the experience of 2019, when Qatar hosted the Gulf Cup, that the noise and congestion of an urban center are unwelcome obstacles during a tournament.
Against the tranquil backdrop of these dunes and, 100 meters in the other direction, a sandy beach lined with palm trees, Hervé Renard leads his players to practice. The complex is closed to everyone except for the Saudi facility, their families, operational staff and a small number of visitors who have purchased day passes to a partitioned beach area. One describes himself as “the Emir’s guest”; However, it is the footballers who have reaped the most obvious benefits of local hospitality.
“It’s an incredible feeling but we talked about it and if we want it to continue we have to qualify from the group,” said Saleh al-Shehri, who equalized against Argentina and took one of the World Cup titles Rolling brought great excitement. Next up are Saudi Arabia and Poland, and their task is to repeat the intensity and courage with which they bent their will last time out. Saturday’s opponent could be seen as a relegation contender from Argentina, but Renard’s side would normally still be seen as underdogs.
Three points would, against all odds, guarantee their first knockout since Saeed al-Owairan’s campaign at USA 94. “All odds were against us,” says Shehri. “We believe in ourselves and we worked hard to get here because it wasn’t easy. And I think we’ve proved to everyone that we’re worth being here.”
Success inevitably breeds greed for more, but there is an awareness at home that even if the Saudis fail to do so, they have already earned a place in the legend. Maybe they’re at their best when the pressure is off. Last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met the team and urged them to “feel comfortable, play and enjoy the tournament”. So far, this request has been granted.
Nonetheless, excitement will run high on Saturday and venues like Msool Park, a stadium in Riyadh dedicated to a fan park and giant screen, will be buzzing with anticipation. “We have to make our country and our fans proud,” Shehri continues. “To get through is a dream for us: to get there again after all these years would be great.”
Before the session begins, Renard engages in an in-depth discussion with Yasser al-Misehal, the FA President. Misehal steps back around the pitch and is soon joined by Renard’s parents in the modest row of seats set up for spectators. Their arrival brings spontaneous applause: families were allowed to join the players and staff today, adding to the tight-knit feel around a setup happy to be hidden from outside view.
That’s where most of the Saudi team spends their time. They are all domestically based and only the most dedicated football fans from further afield could reel off their names before Tuesday. It means they have no secrets from each other and after a two-month training camp together ahead of Qatar 2022, they felt ready to surprise the outside world. “I think we’ve developed a lot,” says Shehri. “It’s a chance to prove to everyone that Saudi football is getting better every day.”
Physical duels will be decisive against Poland. It will be a different kind of challenge, perhaps just as formidable once Robert Lewandowski has his radar repaired, but the opportunity ahead is enticing. Some 200,000 Saudis are expected to party in Qatar during the group stage: that number would increase significantly as they reach the last 16. Shehri can see the price. “We have made history and there is more to come, inshallah,” he says.
Driving north back toward the capital, along nearly empty freeways, flares leap high into the darkening sky from the smokestacks of a sprawling oil refinery that borders the stretch of coast next to Sealine. The contrast with the roaming dromedaries is stark, and one feels that on this brief trip to the Saudi base, the raw materials that power the month-long host nation’s festival have been microcosm-planted.
Saudi Arabia, whose country has its own tension between the private and the tableau shown to the public, intends to turn the global eyes to the lighter side this weekend.