Green Falcons can do the new Saudi Arabia proud in Russia
Arguably the world’s biggest sporting event, the football World Cup, begins in Russia on Thursday. For a month, millions of people around the world will be glued to their television sets to watch 32 nations vie for the most coveted trophy in sports.
Fans will also spend hours scrolling up and down their smartphones to get the latest scores, injury updates and highlights. And, while the World Cup is very much a form of entertainment, as are all sports, there is undoubtedly something special about this truly global event, which takes place in a different country every four years. It is more than just sports and competition. It can often be a melange of politics, culture and economics. And it is not only the players who strive to make their presence felt on this global stage — so do their nations. That is indeed the case for Saudi Arabia.
Being in the tournament is a source of pride for all countries and their fans. The broad appeal and viewership can often shine a spotlight on relatively small or little-known countries. That is certainly always the case with the host nation, which this year is Russia. For the countries that don’t make the finals, especially when they were favored to do so — Italy and the US are the most notable examples this year — the cup becomes a daily and sometimes painful reminder of what could have been.
Although this World Cup is not the first for Saudi Arabia, it is their first since 2006. While the Saudi team is not a favorite to win the tournament, there is little doubt there is a lot riding on the team’s performance, especially given that it will open the tournament against Russia.
My first memory of the World Cup was the 1982 tournament in Spain. Although it was Paolo Rossi’s unique ability to be in exactly the right place at the right time that lifted Italy to victory that year, for many “Espana 82” will forever be remembered for the legendary Brazilian squad captained by Socrates and featuring superstars Zico and Falcao. It was the mastery of that team — and other Brazilian squads before and since — that gave soccer the nickname “the beautiful game.” It was also during that tournament that I came to realize that, with every thrilling win, there is a crushing defeat.
I was lucky enough to attend several World Cup matches in person when the tournament was played in the US in 1994. While football — or soccer as it is called in the US — is not the most popular sport here, the way it is in much of the world, its popularity continues to grow and the US is the one country that has shown that women’s soccer can be just as thrilling as the men’s game.
During the 1994 tournament, which incidentally was the first time Saudi Arabia had qualified, I watched the Green Falcons lose to the Netherlands in the opener in Washington, but saw them beat Morocco in New York. However, the highlight of the tournament for the Saudi squad that year was a goal by Saeed Al-Owairan, which saw him penetrate a solid Belgian team from one end of the pitch to the other and score, all by himself. The goal is considered one of the greatest in World Cup history. There is little doubt it remains the most memorable moment in Saudi soccer at the World Cup. That could change starting on Thursday.
There is little doubt it remains the most memorable moment in Saudi soccer at the World Cup.
In 1994, I also had an opportunity to go into the team’s locker room prior to a friendly match against the US, when the Saudi ambassador at the time, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, addressed the players. Prince Bandar thanked the team and told them he and the entire Kingdom was rooting for them. Looking at the faces of the players as he spoke, it was clear they were humbled by his kind words and relished the opportunity to represent their country on the global stage. I could sense that they were determined to show the world what Saudis can do, especially when they are underestimated.
That is what I expect from the Saudi squad this year. I must confess that I have not seen the team play many games on the road to Moscow, but I feel confident they will exceed expectations and show flashes of brilliance along the way.
Will the team be a reflection of the broader Saudi society? A society that is young, ambitious and looking to make its mark and to prove the naysayers wrong? It is worth noting that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will attend the opener against the host nation. Perhaps more than anyone else, Crown Prince Mohammed has come to embody the new Saudi Arabia: Hard-working, energetic, hopeful and not afraid to take risks. His Vision 2030 is predicated on confidence in the ability of Saudis to rise to the challenge and excel in the face of formidable obstacles.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the Saudi team’s motto for the tournament is “soqourna qadaha,” loosely translated as “our falcons are up to the task.” I can’t wait.
- Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer