By Zeena Saifi, CNN
“It’s been an unbelievable result. The team played really well, they prepared for three years for this day, the coach (Hervé Renard) did an amazing job,” Prince Abdulaziz told CNN’s Becky Anderson in Doha on Wednesday as he reflected on Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 win, which is viewed as the biggest ever World Cup upset.
“There’s harmony and a really good feeling within the team … they fought from the heart to deliver something.”
Celebrations for the remarkable victory continued well into the evening on Tuesday and early Wednesday.
The fan zone area was imbued with the color green as people waved the Saudi flag with pride. Saudi and Arab fans alike were chanting, singing and dancing in euphoria. One fan called it a “huge occasion for the Arab world.”
“I feel absolutely amazing,” a Saudi fan told CNN. “It was a beautiful game. We beat them with Messi! Argentina actually one of the favorites to win the game, they were unbeaten, 36 games. But guess who beat them? Saudi Arabia!”
Assem Al Rajihi, another Saudi fan said: “In this tournament, it is in Qatar, which is a nearby country, a country we love. I think many of the fans are coming from close countries, so I think the atmosphere is very close to us. The culture is there, so we are motivated to do our best.”
That sentiment was echoed by Prince Abdulaziz, who told CNN that the celebrations were not just for Saudi Arabia, but for the entire Arab and Muslim world.
This Saudi victory is much more than David beating Goliath.
On Tuesday, an image of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani did the rounds on social media, along with a photo of him smiling next to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — scenes that would’ve been unthinkable just 18 months ago.
In 2017, Riyadh — along with three other Arab nations — cut off diplomatic and trade ties, shut down its borders and closed their airspace, accusing Doha of supporting extremist groups, allegations which it still denies.
Today, that rift is well and truly over, and Saudi Arabia clinching its biggest football win on Qatari soil is testament to that.
Prince Abdulaziz said that leading up to the World Cup, many teams typically receive a lot of criticism for their performance and training, including Saudi Arabia, but that after Tuesday’s success, “nobody can say anything” about the Green Falcons.
Those Green Falcons lined up against Argentina with 11 players based in the Saudi Pro League and even featured substitute Haitham Asiri who plays in Saudi Arabia’s second division.
Alongside hosts Qatar, Saudi Arabia is the only team to only have a squad made up of entirely domestically based players.
“We’ve invested a lot in sports the last couple of years, and this showcases the results … we are really restructuring sports in the Kingdom as an ecosystem, and how to make it as professional as anywhere else in the world, because we know Saudis are passionate about sports,” said Prince Abdulaziz.
“When I started in the Olympic committee, we had 30 federations. Today, we have 97 federations in different sports … that showcases that the country is active.
“We are doing these things for the people in the country, and it’s benefiting us big time socially, economically on every level,” added Prince Abdulaziz.
There has been criticism directed to Saudi Arabia for sportswashing as an effort to soften the country’s image. Asked whether he believes those remarks are laced with a vein of racism, the minister concurred.
“A bit, and maybe also ignorance. People that don’t know Saudi Arabia, have never been to Saudi Arabia, go out and talk about it as if they’ve lived there for 30 years, 40 years. So I always tell people, come to Saudi. Come and see Saudi.
“See what it is, see the people, meet the people. Look at what the country is doing for the future of the people in Saudi, then you can criticize as much as you like,” he said.
In honor of the team’s historic win, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ordered a national public holiday for a day on Wednesday.
Asked by CNN if the 37-year-old football legend would be playing in Saudi Arabia next season, the minister said: “I don’t know.”
“I read the same thing you read in the news, and we see a lot of things about Saudi Arabia being mentioned in the news, especially when there’s big money around it but I don’t know anything about what his future plans are,” he continued.
Becky Anderson followed up by asking Prince Abdulaziz if he would like to see Ronaldo play in Saudi, and he replied, “Why not?”
“We have a strong league. We have in each team seven foreign players, and one on the bench and we are looking to increase that. Our teams play in the top level of Asia, and football is strong in Saudi.”
Manchester United’s owners have also announced their intention to explore the sale of the iconic club. Asked if Saudi Arabia would put in a bid, similar to its takeover of Newcastle United last year, Prince Abdulaziz didn’t confirm nor deny.
“Everything is possible these days, but I don’t know about the facts of these reports honestly. We look at all opportunities, like everything else, and we think we believe that these opportunities come once in a lifetime, and we have to take advantage of that in everything we do.”
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