Saudi Arabia may have knocked one of the best players in soccer history out of the World Cup with its shocking 2-1 upset victory over heavily favored Argentina. This is the fifth and likely final World Cup for 37-year-old Lionel Messi, and now with two preliminary-round games remaining, it’s increasingly likely that one of the greatest players in soccer history will never hold the trophy aloft. For Riyadh however, the athletic triumph is certain to be parlayed into political and diplomatic triumphs throughout the Middle East at least, and perhaps in other soccer-mad regions, too—meaning everywhere in the world outside of the U.S. and Canada.
Saudi’s win augments its global prestige, especially in comparison to what Riyadh considers its chief threat, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has suffered a dismal Mundial. Never mind Iran’s opening-game 2-6 loss to England; the team publicly refused to sing the clerical regime’s anthem, in a show of support for the growing protest movement back home.
Messi scored on a penalty kick in the first half and then had another goal nullified on an offsides call, the first of three Argentina goals called back for offsides. Saudi scored its two goals in the second half, the last a remarkable shot by midfielder Salem Al-Dawsari. Messi and his mates continued to pressure the Green Falcons but were repeatedly thwarted by goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais, whose five big saves made him man of the match.
It’s hard to overstate the shocking and historic nature of the Saudi upset. Argentina has played in all but four World Cup finals since the tournament’s inception in 1930. It’s won twice, in 1978 and 1986, led by Diego Maradona, one of Messi’s rivals for all-time greatest futbolista. Its rosterful of talent that plays for top European teams in England, Spain, France, Germany, and Italy, La Albiceleste (the white and sky blue), is why the side was a favorite to win it all this year. By comparison, Saudi’s first World Cup appearance was in 1994. Since then, it has garnered an unimpressive record of four wins, 11 losses and two ties.
Given the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s religious significance (as guardian of Islam’s holy shrines in Mecca and Medina) and economic centrality (home to the world’s largest known reserves of oil), you’d think the national team would have a lot of regional support, at least from the Middle East’s Sunni majority. But as I found in Lebanon where I spent the 2006 World Cup, the Sunni community, supported financially and diplomatically by Riyadh, couldn’t have cared less about the Green Falcons. Rather, they were pulling for Germany—for the same reason that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has backed Argentina in the past: Arabs like winners.
In fact, most people like winners; it just has more resonance in the historically resource-poor and oft-invaded lands of Middle East. Rooting for the underdog is an American affectation, shaped in part by a willful forgetting that God had already anointed David before he challenged Goliath. Those who are not innately favored by divinity, especially in places like the Middle East, can’t afford to invest their hopes, or physical safety, in also-rans. Or as Osama bin Laden put it, “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”
And indeed, that’s why Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the former emir of Qatar, bid on the games in 2009. Sure, he wanted to build bridges between the Arabs and the West, and surely there is no better way to connect than by hosting the world’s most famous sporting event—in the desert, and in the winter, thereby forcing all the world’s domestic leagues to rearrange their schedules, while Qatar piled up a list of human rights violations that have led to the deaths of foreign workers.
But the primary aim of the Al Thani clan was to show they were the strong horse of the Arabian Gulf, infinitely and extravagantly more prestigious than their rivals in Riyadh. So the third-wealthiest country in the world spent more than $200 billion to build seven new soccer stadiums, more than 100 new hotels, and expanded its airport, for the express purpose of showing up the neighbors—who went ahead and made themselves the story of the tournament. The current emir, Sheikh Tamim, deserves credit for putting on a good face—he even draped the Saudi flag around his neck to cheer on the Green Falcons. But you can bet there was no joy in Doha when injury time expired with the Saudis on top.
The U.S. establishment is taking the Saudi win even harder. After the game, The New York Times tweeted a link to an article in a partner publication about Messi’s “lucrative deal to promote” Saudi’s bid for the 2030 World Cup (Argentina is also vying to host that year’s tournament). “It’s a strange position to be in,” reads the tweet. Saudi journalist Mohamed Alyahya weighed in on the sore loser post, comparing the conspiracy-mad U.S. elite to the “intellectuals of a third-world military cabal—like the Syrian Ba’ath.”
Even before the September 11 attacks, U.S. officials demanded that Saudi Arabia open up to the rest of the world. With a reform-minded leader in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it would seem natural for that same establishment to see the Saudi win as an occasion to celebrate the kingdom’s successes, which might naturally augment U.S. prestige.
But perhaps anti-Saudi animus is to be expected from a U.S. ruling class that has made a habit of running down historical allies like the Saudis and the Israelis while extolling the dubious virtues of their regional adversary, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Barack Obama made allying the U.S. with the mullahs his signature foreign policy initiative, while the Times ran tours to Iran in partnership with the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, until Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran deal.
Why should the contest between Iran and the Saudis for supremacy in the Arab and wider Muslim world matter to Americans? For one, nearly half the world’s population between the ages of 12 and 24, a total of 525 million people, lives in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, with the global growth rate for Muslim populations being nearly twice that of non-Muslims. As Alyahya wrote in these pages some months ago:
For rulers of countries with young and growing populations, a youth-driven future can seem either promising or terrifying. The youthful nations that will dominate the future of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East can choose the path of inclusion of young people, innovation, and opportunities for personal and economic growth—or else they can try to repress the demands of young people through force.
Under the spotlight of the World Cup, the reality is stark: Saudi Arabia not only beat a traditional World Cup favorite in a historic upset, it also filled the stands with thousands of young fans who paid their way to Qatar in order to drape themselves in the national colors and cheer wildly for the Green Falcons. The Iranian team stayed silent during the national anthem because it does not believe in its mission—to represent a nation whose governing body is torturing, raping, and executing its own children. Even more significantly, these contrasting scenes happened in real time in front of the cameras, while the entire region was glued to its television sets and iPhones.
The people of the Middle East recognize a strong horse when they see one: That horse is clearly not Iran. By attempting to reenter the Iran deal, fill the regime’s war chests with billions of dollars, and legitimize its nuclear weapons program, the Biden administration is doing something even worse than backing sectarian tyrants who spread death and destruction. It’s backing losers. That’s the one crime that no one in the region will ever forgive or forget, and America’s prestige will only suffer as a result, along with its strategic interests.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).