Two days after scoring in one of the biggest upsets of the World Cup, Saleh Al-Shehri is only looking to the future.
“We did a job perfectly and it’s not over yet,” said the Saudi Arabia striker of his side’s 2-1 win over Argentina on Tuesday.
“We want that feeling to last. We have to qualify from this group. We still have two jobs to do.”
He smiles when reminded that his team’s victory sparked a national holiday, but gets slightly sour when asked if the fact that all 26-man squad plays their football in Saudi Arabia does the team spirit encourages. The implication, of course, is that they’re not good enough to play anywhere else.
“All the teams train together and know each other very well,” says Al-Shehri, who has yet to play a league game for his side Al-Hilal this season. “They play together in Europe, so they know each other very well.
“We develop a lot. It’s a chance to prove to everyone that Saudi football is getting better every day.
“Did we have something to prove? I think so because all the odds were against us and we believed in ourselves and worked hard to get there. It wasn’t easy and we proved to everyone that we’re worth being here.”
After all, they didn’t have to go far. The Saudi border is little more than an hour’s drive from the team’s training base.
Upon arrival at Doha Airport, a “Visit Saudi Arabia” sign greets you, and social media users in Qatar are peppered with similar ads. It wasn’t always like that, but how the athlete As he traveled to Tuesday’s game with Saudi Arabia fans, it turns out that at times it almost feels like a home game for Al-Shehri and his team-mates.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was feeling comfortable alongside FIFA President Gianni Infantino for Sunday’s opening match of the World Cup.
“Of course (it helps),” says Al-Shehri. “We want to thank the fans for being here and supporting us. The weather and atmosphere are closer to home. That’s also positive, that’s an advantage for us.”
With a two-month camp and six friendly matches, the team prepared for the World Cup and Saudi Arabia chose their training base for the tournament two and a half years ago.
They were looking for an area of relative solitude so the team wouldn’t hear the chanting of fans or the noise of traffic on the streets around their hotel. They also wanted to be able to walk from their rooms to the training ground, rather than relying on buses in a potentially congested city center – even if local children were given a month off from school to avoid the roads at be clogged during collection. Time.
And so the choice fell on the A Murwab Resort on Sealine Beach Road. Head south from Doha past the airport, reach the end of the metro line, pass England’s training base at Al-Wakrah near Al-Janoub Stadium and basically travel about 35 miles along a very straight and very sandy highway.
High-rises quickly give way to more ornate homes, then comes a power station, and then the sand dunes and beach resorts, swapping 4x4s for horses as the kilometers go by. There is a camel ride site next to the resort, or you can cruise around in a dune buggy if you prefer. “Doha in a microcosm,” commented a colleague.
The resort, with its private villas and long stretch of beach, is reserved for “soccer family” guests during this World Cup. If this were England there would inevitably be stories of the players getting bored with the loneliness. Remember the base in Rustenburg, South Africa that former England head coach Fabio Capello chose for the 2010 World Cup; a quiet part of the country where many seemed to go insane at times.
There is certainly hearty applause as Saudi manager Herve Renard’s mother, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, and father slowly walk downstairs to watch the training session with the help of his partner Viviane Dieye.
Dieye is the widow of Bruno Metsu, the Senegalese head coach who oversaw a surprise 1-0 World Cup win over France in 2002 and died of cancer in 2013.
Renard’s parents are among a small group of friends and family who came in on Thursday and were allowed to see the players and staff. They smile for the cameras, sit on a makeshift grandstand and watch Saudi Arabia warm up.
Next up is Robert Lewandowski’s Poland on Saturday and expectations are high.
Saudi Arabia reached the round of 16 in their World Cup debut in the USA in 1994. can they do it again
“It’s a dream for us because we haven’t qualified (for the knockout stages) since 1994,” says Al-Sheri. “Coming back after all these years would be great.
“In 20 years we’ve worked a lot, we’ve worked hard and now in 2022 we’ve made history in Qatar and there’s more to come.”
(Top Photo: Li Ga/Xinhua via Getty Images)