Desert heroes shed new light on secret state: World Cup success puts Saudis under spotlight

THEY CAME round about once every eight minutes - two young boys, no more than 10 years old, running the full circle of the stadium, high in the terraces, trailing a green flag of Saudi Arabia that bears a scimitar and ancient script from the Koran. They drew cheers from their own - even from some of us Belgium supporters - and the heat did not slow them. Nor did it slow their team.

In that cauldron of the John F Kennedy Stadium in Washington on Wednesday, the players of the Saudi national team, with their 1-0 World Cup win over Belgium, transported their fans - teens in T-shirts, a scattering of women in black veils, men blowing horns and a party of royal princes - into high delirium. They also made themselves the darlings of the competition.

Who are these young, and to many people's surprise, black athletes who are defying every prediction that they would be knocked out in the first round, but have won second place in their group and advancement to Round 2? Who in particular is goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea, who can leap as high as any American basketball professional? What's the source of inspiration for Saeed Owairan who weaved forward from way down the field to score against Belgium after just five minutes?

Even before they started winning, the Saudis were the objects of fevered comment and speculation. This was the country's first appearance in World Cup competition. There was an early feud with McDonald's, a sponsor, because the sacred flag had been printed on its takeaway paper bags. Training sessions here were being conducted in unusual secrecy. There were rumours of fantastic gifts being showered on the players by King Fahd just for having qualified - reportedly dollars 100,000 and a Mercedes limousine each.

And there is the mystery of Saudi Arabia itself. Though one of the richest nations in the world, it remains one of the least visited and understood. It is no surprise that the government is trying to use the World Cup to promote a new image. Multi- page advertisements have been placed in newspapers and 12- page glossy supplements are given to fans at every match.

In view of the team's success, such propaganda seems crude and superfluous. Not for the first time in the history of world diplomacy, sport is providing a nation with its best ambassadors. Abdulla Aboukhater, a team spokesman, said last week: 'When we came here, we were considered as underdogs. People thought of Saudi Arabia and they thought of camels and oil and sand. They even tried to dehumanise us. We came to the World Cup to tell the whole world of our tradition, our culture and our religion.'

There is no detaching the Saudi team from the country's royal and Islamic heritage. King Fahd is the owner and prime sponsor of the national team, and no coach dares defy his wishes. In the nine months before the World Cup, the national squad shed three coaches - from Brazil, the Netherlands and the kingdom itself - as each fell into royal disfavour.

The current coach, Jorge Solari of Argentina, was recruited in February after King Fahd asked for him in a telephone call to Argentine President, Carlos Menem.

An unknown number of princes, meanwhile, attended Wednesday's match: a Saudi spokesman knew only of three, but admitted there might have been at least 100.

The team's presence also offers a striking glimpse of Saudi Arabia's ethnic diversity. The inclusion of so many blacks - only three non-black players were fielded against Belgium - has highlighted what many unfamiliar with the country may not have known: that centuries of contacts with the Muslim countries of Africa, from the Sudan and across to Nigeria, has led to considerable racial inter-mixing in the country.

Although a minority, Arabs of African stock make up a sizeable part of the population, especially in the south. Most of them, it must be said, are in the lower and least wealthy levels of society, but most Saudis will take offence even at the suggestion that black Arabs suffer discrimination

Even before the coming of the Prophet Muhammad at the end of the sixth century, history records invasions of the Arabian peninsula, as far north as Jedda, by African armies on elephants. In subsequent centuries, blacks came to the country on pilgrimages to Mecca, sometimes selling slaves or even children to finance return journeys. Slavery itself was not banned until 1962.

In the early Fifties, Prince (later King) Faisal caused consternation during a visit to New York by bringing his black slave with him. The Waldorf Astoria, where he was billeted, was outraged - not as you might imagine by the reappearance of slavery on American soil, but rather by Faisal's insistence that the slave eat with him in the hotel dining room, where blacks were still not allowed.

But how, in the meantime, did football gain a hold in a country whose national sports used to be falconry and camel racing? The history of Saudi soccer is indeed brief. Hearsay suggests it was introduced by crew members of British merchant ships landing at Jedda in the mid-1920s: they played on the beach and the game caught on.

But a national team was created only in 1976; then the Saudi government decided to divert some of its oil riches to building facilities and clubs across the country. The result would probably be best viewed from a satellite: scores of tiny green strips laid down in the desert for Saudis to develop their football skills.

Today, football is a national obsession. Saudi Arabia has a league modelled on those in Britain, with three divisions and a nine-month season from autumn to late spring. Teams are relegated or promoted at season's end, and each can count on a strong local following.

According to Saleh Hammadi, a Saudi sports correspondent covering the World Cup, fans travel to away games all over Saudi Arabia. If Shabab (Youth) of Jedda has an away game against Alwehdah (Unity) of Mecca in the holy city, their fans will generally try to go there. Is there football hooliganism in the kingdom? No, says Hammadi. 'They do sometimes get a little wild, but within certain limits.'

Now their national heroes are in the final 16 of the World Cup, and are being dubbed the 'Brazilians of the desert'. So what if they are receiving cars and other riches from the king. If they keep playing like they did on Wednesday, they should have everything they wish for.

And that's from a Belgium supporter.

(Photograph omitted)

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