DOHA: Saudi Arabia will leave this World Cup having developed a love-hate relationship with Lusail Stadium. This striking architectural masterpiece is where their World Cup sprang to life in sensational fashion with that stunning win over Argentina in their opening game, which will be remembered for generations.
Sadly, after losing to Poland in game two, they could not follow up the triumph over Argentina with victory against Mexico in game three, and so it was that at Lusail Stadium on Wednesday their campaign came to a somewhat anticlimactic end.
But both before and after the game the Saudi fans showed why they will be so badly missed during the remainder of the tournament. Despite the defeat, they were in joyous spirits after the game, spilling out onto Lusail Boulevard to celebrate what was their modern footballing coming of age.
Walking — or should that be running — to Lusail Stadium before the game in a mad dash after witnessing Australia make history at Al-Janoub Stadium, one could be forgiven for thinking there were as many fans outside as inside.
Lusail Boulevard was looking resplendent as ever, with the flags of the competing nations flying overhead as tens of thousands of fans mingled and the match got underway.
As I arrived shortly after kick-off, the screams and cheers could be heard some distance from the stadium, leaving one to wonder what exactly was happening and which set of fans were making all the noise. As numerous and vocal as the Saudi fans were, the Mexican fans matched anything they had to offer.
There was so much green inside Lusail that it was hard to know which team had the greatest support because, once again, the atmosphere generated by both sets of fans was incredible.
Despite their win over Argentina and an impressive showing against Poland in defeat, the Green Falcons were under the pump for most of the first half against a Mexican side that clearly meant business. Mexico knew they needed goals to have any hope of advancing and they came out with only one intent.
Missing a host of first-team regulars, victory was always going to be a tall order for Herve Renard’s side and that is exactly how the first half played out. The Green Falcons managed few advances into the forward third of the pitch, at least few that threatened, and so the biggest cheers were reserved for lunging tackles and desperate saves.
Still, at the break the Saudis were still alive. While the score remained 0-0 they stood a chance, and with Salem Al-Dawsari there is always reason to be optimistic.
Lusail Stadium has instantly become an iconic World Cup Stadium. From its stunning, shimmering gold facade to the steep banks of seats in the grandstands that have the near-90,000 fans sitting right on top of the action, it will provide an incredible setting for the final in a little over two weeks.
But tonight, Mexico did to Saudi Arabia what the Saudis did to Argentina on matchday one, scoring two goals in a four-minute spell inside of the opening 10 minutes of the second half that ended the contest and silenced the normally vociferous Saudi fans.
But while those wearing Saudi green had lost their voice, those in Mexican green had found theirs. Beating drums, screaming chants, waving flags; the Mexican fans brought Lusail Stadium to life and the party did not end with the full-time whistle.
The great shame for the rest of the tournament is that both teams were eliminated, because the World Cup has lost two of its most passionate sets of fans.
But as the party continued on Lusail Boulevard long after full time we were reminded that the World Cup is not only about success on the pitch — it is also about the experience, the atmosphere and uniting the world.
As I looked around at the Saudi fans in Mexican hats, and fans from all over the world mingling and sharing the experience, I’m reminded that tonight there truly were no losers.
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