IIn 2019, the world football association FIFA presented a study in which the expansion of the World Cup to 48 instead of 32 teams was examined in detail for the next tournament. The result: quite possible. The limitation: but not for Qatar alone. At least one neighbor should have become co-hosts.
Gianni Infantino would certainly have liked it very much if this partner had become Saudi Arabia. Like others, the country had severed diplomatic relations with Qatar at the time. And then a political rapprochement through a joint football tournament? For the FIFA President, that would have been a good argument for his Nobel Peace Prize.
It didn’t come to that. In January 2021, Saudi Arabia ended the blockade even without Infantino. And the World Cup is currently being played at the old team level before it is increased in 2026. Despite all that, the Saudis make this World Cup theirs. Many fans have made the relatively short journey to Doha and are cheering on their team at an impressive volume.
At the start of the tournament, there was even a sporting sensation. Saudi Arabia defeated Argentina 2-1. In the second game, however, the party in green was – for the time being – over. Poland prevailed with 2:0 goals. Piotr Zielinski (40th) and Robert Lewandowski, with his first goal at a World Cup, scored (82nd).
“I felt the emotions from the anthem. It’s difficult to describe what I feel,” said the “world footballer” and former Bayern striker: “I’ve had this dream in me since I was a child. This dream has come true, it means so much to me.”
With the enthusiasm with which the Saudis had ended the game against Argentina, they also started Saturday afternoon’s game against Poland at Education City Stadium – not only on the pitch, but also in the stands. The clear majority of the fans supported the team in green, whose mood for the game was palpable in every scene. With technically high-quality football, the Saudis combined again and again in front of the Polish goal. Mohammed al-Breik fired the first shot on goal (8th minute), Mohamed Kanno’s attempt, which Wojciech Szczesny parried (13th), was even better.
Meanwhile, Poland only collected yellow cards. Jakub Kiwior, Matty Cash and Arkadius Milik were cautioned early on. And otherwise? After the initial offensive reluctance, the eleven around world footballer Lewandowski found the game a little better. Krystian Bielik headed in from a corner, but Saleh al-Shehri did the job for his goalkeeper (26′). Mohammed al-Owais was powerless in the 39th minute. Lewandowski was initially unable to get past the goalkeeper, but reacted promptly and put the ball back from the baseline. Piotr Zielinski threw the game device into the goal net to make it 1-0.
It didn’t take the Saudis long to recover from the shock. When Bielik brought down striker al-Shehri, who had previously met at the other end of Poland’s first chance, referee Wilton Sampaio only allowed play to continue. But video assistant Bruno Boschilia drew his attention to a possible foul. Sampaio watched the scene again on the screen and decided: penalty. The cheers from the Saudi fans were as loud as if their team had won the World Cup. But Firas al-Buraikan was denied by Szczesny, who also saved al-Breik’s margin.
The Saudis were not discouraged, however, and continued to try their luck. Captain Salem al-Dawsari prevailed after a commotion in the penalty area, but failed again at the strong Szczesny (55′), a little later al-Buraikan shot over the goal from a tight angle (60′). First the Saudis had no luck, then the Poles had bad luck. Milik after a cross with his head (63′) and Lewandowski with his calf (66′) only hit the crossbar and the post. Saudi Arabia kept trying, but the shots from al-Dawsari (69′) and Abdullelah al-Malki (78′) were too weak.
The bad feelings got even stronger. The shooter drummed on the ground after a failed attempt, coach Herve Renard grabbed his head in bewilderment. When al-Malki was the last field player to lose the ball to Lewandowski in the penalty area, he scored to make it 2-0 (82′). “The goal was important, but it was also important that we won. I’m really proud. But we mustn’t forget that we still have a game ahead of us,” said Lewandowski. It was his first goal at a World Cup after missing out in 2018 and missing a penalty in last Tuesday’s 0-0 draw with Mexico. The former FC Bayern goalscorer slid jubilantly across the lawn. He missed his second goal when he failed with a lob at the goalkeeper (90th).
The Saudi party was long over by then. Numerous fans among the 44,259 spectators had left the stadium and the cheering had stopped. Instead, one only heard the songs of the Polish supporters, who called out one name in particular: Lewandowski. As against Mexico, he had a remarkably positive effect on his team-mates, whom he had publicly criticized in the past. Again and again he applauded, even after bad passes. The reward was rich with the first victory in Qatar. Poland now has the best chance of reaching the round of 16.
With the result of the earlier game in Group C, the pressure on Argentina before the game in the evening (8 p.m. CET in the FAZ live ticker for the soccer World Cup, on ARD and on MagentaTV) against Mexico is immense. If Messi and Co. lose, the World Cup is over for them. In the event of a draw, the Argentines would have to win against Poland by at least two goals to ensure progress. At the same time, Mexico meets Saudi Arabia. Their fans should find their voice again. With the fiery supporters from Central America, it should be a very atmospheric game. In 2030 the World Cup might really come to Saudi Arabia. The country is planning a tournament with Egypt and Greece.