Saudi Arabia’s fan culture wows the World Cup

The kingdom’s unique football culture makes its presence felt in the global football tournament.

Saudi fans create an atmosphere that is among the most impressive in world football [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Doha, Qatar – If there is one thing you can say about Saudi Arabia’s fans, it’s that they can make a party.

At the Lusail Stadium on Tuesday they roared their national team to a shock win against Argentina, the noise reverberating inside the stadium, giving any football fan watching goosebumps.

They tried to do it again on Saturday when Saudi Arabia played Poland, but their team came up short.

But the Saudis’ World Cup isn’t over – and you can expect their hardcore support again on Wednesday against Mexico in the last group game.

At the Saudi House fan zone on Doha’s Corniche, where fans who were not able to get game tickets gathered, it was clear that this is a football fan culture that grew organically in Saudi Arabia.

“This hardcore fan culture has always existed,” Yasin, a Saudi Arabia and Al-Ittihad fan who’s travelled to Doha from Jeddah, told Al Jazeera. “It’s better than European football culture, it’s more like Latin American football culture. We have loudspeakers, drums… the songs, the flutes. That’s all part of our culture, not something we’ve imported.”

Al-Ittihad is one of the biggest Saudi clubs. Its Jeddah derby against Al-Ahli is one of the most hotly anticipated events in Saudi Arabia each year.

At those games, fans create an atmosphere that is among the most impressive in world football.

That explains Saudi fans’ passionate celebrations after the Argentina win – including a viral clip of a group dancing in joy to the 1997 dance track Freed from Desire.

Yasin says the scenes at the World Cup have been quite common in the Saudi league for years, a fervour now transferred to the national team.

“The fan groups have united,” Yasin said. “We sing along to our club teams tunes, but we’ve changed them to represent the national team. We’ve started to represent our national team more. Before we’d come with club shirts, now we’re all wearing the green of Saudi Arabia.”

“It’s organised. We have tifos [choreographed visual display] prepared beforehand, the colours, the chants. We get everything ready before we come. That has all come in the last 10 years. We’ve taken what we had traditionally and made it better.”

Responding to negativity

When Qatar was awarded the World Cup, it billed it as not just a tournament for itself, but for the Arab world and the Middle East as a whole.

That narrative took a knock during the boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. But since the end of the three-year boycott in 2021 and the restoration of ties between the countries, there has been evidence of it turning into a reality.

A World Cup in the region has allowed fans from not just Saudi Arabia, but also as far away as Morocco and Tunisia, to come and support their teams in numbers never seen before at a tournament.

Ali, a Bahraini who has just finished studying in Newcastle in the United Kingdom, says the World Cup has been a great opportunity for Saudis, and Arabs in general, to show off their own fan culture and educate people about it.

“The idea that we don’t have a football culture in the Gulf and in the Arab world is wrong, and this World Cup is the biggest piece of evidence,” Ali told Al Jazeera. “Saudi fans, in their love and support for football, are representing Arab fans in general. They’re a great representative.

“I think that it’ll get even better now after the World Cup and that Saudi Arabia can even host the World Cup in the future,” Ali added.

As for Saudi football, Rashid, who was also at the fan zone, says the developments in recent years, such as new academies for youth players, will only improve the league and the national team and further entrench the Ultras fan culture that has developed.

“Saudi football is developing, especially in recent years,” Rashid said. “There’s more attention on it, and youth players are being developed in organised national academies. We won’t benefit from this now, but much later down the line. It’s our job as fans to keep the culture of our support strong and keep pushing the team forward to more success.”

Source: Al Jazeera