Hidden near the dunes, Saudi Arabia plot another World Cup shock

Half a mile to the south of Saudi Arabia’s training pitch, the silhouettes of two camels move slowly against the late afternoon sun. They are carrying visitors along the crest of a sand dune whose slopes are scarred by the tracks of overland vehicles and SUVs. At the bottom, a gargantuan Chevrolet advertisement offers alternative transport options and a long line of semi-permanent structures hawks tourist trinkets. This is the gateway to a region Qatar hopes will bewitch those who want a break from the football: a near-empty expanse of undulating sand that covers the country’s south-eastern interior and is marketed as an outdoor adventurer’s playground.

In truth it hardly resembles a honeypot and that is how its temporary residents like it. The Saudi Football Association stole in quickly to secure this base, at the exclusive Sealine beach resort, two and a half years ago. It is only 25 miles from the border with their country and, an hour’s drive south of Doha, feels cut off from the inner city’s manic energy. They knew from the experience of 2019, when Qatar hosted the Gulf Cup, that the noise and logjams of an urban centre present unwelcome hurdles over the course of a tournament.

So it is to the quiet backdrop of those dunes and, 100 metres in the other direction, a palm-fringed stretch of sand that Hervé Renard leads his players out for practice. The complex is closed to everyone bar the Saudi setup, their loved ones, operational personnel and a small number of visitors who have purchased day passes for a sectioned-off area of beach. One describes himself as “a guest of the emir”; it is the footballers, though, who have reaped the most obvious benefits of local hospitality.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling but we were talking about this and, if we want it to last, we have to qualify from the group,” says Saleh al-Shehri, who scored the equaliser against Argentina and set in train one of the World Cup’s great upsets. Saudi Arabia face Poland next and their task is to repeat the intensity and bravery that bent proceedings to their will last time out. Saturday’s opponents may be considered a rung down from Argentina but Renard’s side would still ordinarily be viewed as underdogs.

Three points would, contrary to every initial expectation, guarantee their first knockout assignment since the Saeed al-Owairan-fuelled campaign at USA 94. “All the odds were against us,” Shehri says. “We believe in ourselves and we worked hard to get here because it wasn’t easy. And I think we proved to everyone that we are worthy of being here.”

Success inevitably begets greed for more but there is an awareness back home that, even if the Saudis fall short from hereon, they have already earned a place in legend. Perhaps they are at their best when the pressure is off. Last month Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, met the squad and told them to “be comfortable, play and enjoy the tournament”. That request has been fulfilled so far.

Saleh al-Shehri
Nonetheless excitement will be at fever pitch on Saturday and venues such as Mrsool Park, a stadium in Riyadh that has been given over to a fan park and giant screen, will teem with anticipation. “We have to make our country and our fans proud,” Shehri continues. “Going through is a dream for us: to get back there after all these years would be amazing.”

Before the session starts, Renard stands in deep conversation with Yasser al-Misehal, the FA president. Misehal makes his way back around the pitch and is soon joined, in the modest bank of seats erected for onlookers, by Renard’s parents. Their arrival brings spontaneous applause: families have been allowed to join the players and staff today, adding to the close-knit feel around a setup happy to be at a remove from the external gaze.

That is where most of the Saudi squad spend their time. They are all domestic-based and only the most dedicated of football followers from further-flung regions could reel off their names before Tuesday. It means that they have no secrets from each other and, having spent a two-month training camp together in the runup to Qatar 2022, felt ready to surprise the outside world. “I think we’ve developed a lot,” Shehri says. “It’s a chance to prove to everyone that Saudi football is getting better day by day.”

Physical duels will, he suggested, be decisive against Poland. It will be a different kind of challenge, perhaps an equally imposing one if Robert Lewandowski has mended his radar, but the opportunity ahead is alluring. During the group stage about 200,000 Saudis are expected to visit Qatar for the party: that number would swell considerably with progress to the last 16. Shehri can see the prize. “We made history and there is still more to come, inshallah,” he says.

Driving north back towards the capital, along near-empty highways, flares leap high into the darkening sky from the stacks of a sprawling oil refinery that adjoins the stretch of shore next to Sealine. The contrast with the wandering dromedaries is stark and there is a sense that, in this short trip to the Saudis’ base, the raw materials powering the host country’s month-long festival have been set in microcosm.

Saudi Arabia, whose country has its own tension between the private and the tableau shown to the public, intend to keep global eyes on the brighter side this weekend.