LUSAIL CITY, Qatar - To many football fans, Lionel Messi is a god. But not to those from Saudi Arabia.
That was certainly the case for those shouting and screaming themselves hoarse at the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday. And more so for the many more millions back home as their footballers scored an incredible 2-1 upset of Argentina in their opening World Cup game just across the border.
Turning out in force, the Saudi fans gave their full-throated support to their team from the first whistle and never let up.
They did not waver even after Messi put the world No. 3 Argentinians ahead from the penalty spot in the 10th minute, continuing to sing, chant and twirl scarves as they bopped up and down in the stands.
They were rewarded by two stunning second-half goals, which propelled the Green Falcons to a historic victory over the South American giants.
“Messi is not god!” declared Saudi fan Mohammed Al-Zahran, 26.
His buddy Saud Fahad, with a Saudi flag draped over his shoulders, said: “We played a great match because of the team’s spirit. If we did not have spirit, we would not have won today.”
This is the first World Cup in the Middle East and it is one that feels almost like a “home” tournament for the Saudis, who share a border with Qatar. As a result, plenty among the 88,012 spectators in the stands were decked out in green.
This strong support, said fan Ahmed Thabet, was another reason for the team’s performance.
Another supporter, Abdullah Obaidi, paid tribute to the players and their French coach Herve Renard, noting that they had worked hard for two years to prepare for the World Cup.
“Everybody was saying Argentina, with Messi, would score, four, five, six goals,” said Abdullah, 26. “But everybody in the world now sees what Saudi can do in the World Cup.”
Ahmed, 35, said the players played with “all their soul and their blood” to hang on for the win.
Saudi Arabia are eyeing progress to the knockout stage for just the second time in six appearances. The only other occasion was their 1994 debut in the United States.
But Ahmed was concerned that they might get carried away by their sensational result and drop points against Poland and Mexico, the other Group C teams.
“But in shaa Allah (God willing), we will go through to the round of 16,” he said.