Two days on from scoring in one of the World Cup’s greatest upsets, Saleh Al-Shehri only wants to look to the future.
“We did one job perfectly and it’s not finished,” the Saudi Arabia striker says of his side’s 2-1 win over Argentina on Tuesday.
“We want this feeling to last. We have to qualify from this group. We have two more jobs to do.”
He smiles when reminded that his team’s victory prompted a national holiday but bristles slightly when asked whether the fact that all of the 26-man squad play their football in Saudi Arabia aids team spirit. The implication being, of course, they are not good enough to play anywhere else.
“All of the teams train together and know each other very well,” says Al-Shehri, who has not started a league match for his side, Al-Hilal, this season. “They play together in Europe so they know each other very well.
“We are developing a lot. It’s a chance to prove to everyone that Saudi football is getting better every day.
“Did we have a point to prove? I guess yes because all the odds were against us and we believed in ourselves and we worked hard to get there. It wasn’t easy and we proved to everyone that we are worthy to be here.”
They did not have to come far, after all. The Saudi border is little more than an hour’s drive away from the team’s training base.
On arrival at Doha Airport, it is a “Visit Saudi Arabia” sign that greets you, and social media users in Qatar are being peppered with similar adverts. It has not always been this way but, as The Athletic discovered when travelling to Tuesday’s match with Saudi Arabia fans, this almost feels like a home tournament at times for Al-Shehri and his team-mates.
The crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, certainly looked at home sitting next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino at the World Cup’s opening match on Sunday.
“Of course (it helps),” says Al-Shehri. “We want to thank the fans for being here and supporting us. The weather and the atmosphere are closer to home. That’s also a positive thing, it is some advantage for us.”
The team built up to the World Cup with a two-month camp and six friendly matches, and Saudi Arabia selected their training base for the tournament two and a half years ago.
They were looking for an area of relative solitude, so the squad would not hear the singing of fans or the hubbub of traffic in the streets around their hotel. They also wanted to be able to walk from their rooms to the training pitch, rather than relying on buses in what can be a congested city centre — even if local children have been given a month off school to avoid clogging up the roads at pick-up time.
And so the A Murwab Resort on Sealine Beach Road was chosen. Head south of Doha past the airport, reach the end of the metro line, go past England’s training base at Al-Wakrah near the Al Janoub Stadium and keep going, basically, for some 35 miles along a very straight and very sandy highway.
High-rise blocks quickly give way to more palatial homes, then comes a power station and then the sand dunes and beach resorts, with SUVs swapped for horses as the miles tick by. There’s a place to go camel-riding next to the resort, or you can tear about in a dune buggy if you prefer. “Doha in microcosm,” commented one colleague.
The resort, with its private villas and long stretch of beach, is restricted to guests of the “football family” during this World Cup. If this were England, there would inevitably be stories about the players getting bored by the solitude. Think back to the base in Rustenburg, South Africa, which former England head coach Fabio Capello chose for the 2010 World Cup; a quiet part of the country in which many appeared to go stir-crazy at times.
There is certainly a very warm round of applause when Saudi manager Herve Renard’s mother, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday, and father walk slowly down to watch training with the help of his partner, Viviane Dieye.
Dieye is the widow of Bruno Metsu, the Senegal head coach who oversaw a shock 1-0 World Cup win against France in 2002 and died from cancer in 2013.
Renard’s parents are part of a small group of friends and family who have been allowed to come in and see the players and staff on Thursday. They smile at the cameras, sit on a temporary stand and watch Saudi Arabia warming up.
Next up are Robert Lewandowski’s Poland on Saturday and expectations have been raised.
Saudi Arabia reached the last-16 on their World Cup debut in 1994 in the United States. Can they do it again?
“It’s a dream for us because we haven’t qualified (for the knockout rounds) since 1994,” says Al-Shehri. “So to come back after all these years would be amazing.
“In 20 years, we worked a lot, we worked hard, and now in 2022 in Qatar we made history and there’s some more to come.”
(Top photo: Li Ga/Xinhua via Getty Images)