DOHA, Qatar — Planes from all over the world land every few minutes. They come from London and Tokyo, Hong Kong and São Paulo. About 300 scheduled passenger flights will land at Hamad International Airport on Saturday.
But among them were dozens of planes that hadn’t flown far, sometimes just a few hundred miles to the west and just after reaching cruising altitude. They are from Saudi Arabia, the neighboring country of Qatar, and they bring excited people in blue shirts and no luggage to check in.
These World Cup passengers won’t stay long. Starting at 4 p.m. They would wake up home on Sunday, a workday, in their own bed.
They are football fans, and they bring only what they need: banners, flags and passports. And they brought a new sense of collective expectation when they came to cheer on Saudi Arabia, the unbelievable darling of the league, if not the whole Middle East.
beat Argentina will do it. Now, each game is bigger than the previous one. After the 0-2 loss to Poland, the next game against Mexico on Wednesday will decide whether Saudi Arabia makes it to the round of 16. Hopefully that will create another day like this.
By mid-morning, the airport in Doha was filled with green. Among them were brothers Faris and Salman al-Hassan, who had just taken a short flight from Riyadh, wearing a green shirt and scarf.
They can be reached by car, they say – Doha is about six hours from Riyadh – but Qatar, worried about car traffic, has discouraged that idea for the World Cup. It created a temporary fee of 5,000 Saudi riyals (about $1,330) for those driving across the border during the tournament.
An alternative solution is Park at the border and hop on the bus at the Abu Samra checkpoint, Qatar, as thousands of others have done over the past week. The no-frills bus ride takes just over an hour, but the bus isn’t the hard part: Abu Samra is a few hours from any major Saudi city.
So thousands of people have made a choice: Travel by air.
Come in. Cheer. Get out.
“We’ll go straight to the stadium and be right back,” said Salman al-Hassan.
About 20 flights to Doha from Saudi cities are between dawn and 1pm on Saturday, just in time for afternoon departures.
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At 11:15 am, an Airbus 320 from Riyadh arrived here. Another large Airbus departed near Dammam, formed a gentle parabola in the sky, and landed in Doha at 11:30am. In its slide was one flight from Medina, then another from Riyadh, then one from Damman, then one from Jeddah, across the Arabian Peninsula along the Red Sea.
That’s in the space of an hour. Flight by flight, jumbo jet by plane, nauses bright-eyed revelers and then returns for more.
Arriving in Qatar, the fans arrived, through customs and baggage claim – most of which were not necessary stops – and into the silent lobby of the glittering station. Some stop at booths to pick up a SIM card or some Qatari cash. Some found a counter to store their bags for the day, wishing they had packed lighter.
Most, it turns out, have never been to Doha. It is more of an emerging global capital than a regional destination.
This will be a quick, one-day takeover. From the station, Saudis take the metro, get off at Msheireb station in the city centre, walk around and eat, then back to the metro – the green line, fittingly – to ride eight stops to Education City Stadium.
There, Poland is waiting for a lot of away teams.
Poland took the lead in the 39th minute when Piotr Zielinski made a pass from star striker Robert Lewandowski. But the Saudis arrived with brimming confidence and, aided by a passionate crowd, were quick to find the equalizer.
Salem al-Dawsari had a chance just before half-time, but his penalty was shoved aside by Poland’s goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. The rebound fell into the hands of a teammate, but his sharp shot was also blocked. The blue-shirted fans in the stands groaned, then groaned again when Lewandowski’s goal in the 82nd minute sealed Saudi Arabia’s defeat.
Regardless of the outcome, all of this came as a surprise. Saudi Arabia’s football team arrived in Qatar as a classic underdog, their squad mostly from domestic leagues. It started the tournament with the longest odds in the field, 1,000 to 1, and with the permission of no less than the de facto ruler of the kingdom, Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman, Don’t worry too much about winning or losing.
But when he lost 1-0 to Lionel Messi and Argentina on Tuesday, Saudi striker Saleh al-Shehri was an instant national hero. In a breakthrough, he made a left footed shot that missed the Argentina goal. Al-Dawsari followed a few minutes later with a thunderous shot into the top right corner.
The Saudis took the lead and held on to the win. It’s a such an unlikely outcome That Wednesday has been declared a national holiday. That probably gave fans more time to organize their pilgrimages in and out on Saturday and at least one more.
Early Saturday morning, before 8 a.m., a family woke up in their home in Riyadh and headed out the door to the airport. That group, the Abdulilah family – two aunts, a niece and a cousin – bought tickets months ago for 600 riyals ($160 per person).
They thought about driving to Doha – all but one had never been – but the cost and uncertainty about traffic and parking deter them.
When more flights were added to the schedule a few weeks ago, they bought tickets for 999 riyals, or $266. Some of the women in the group admitted that they were not die-hard football fans. One, who just likes to be named Halah, hadn’t heard of today’s famous players until the last game.
Her cousin, Luluh, said the match will be her first sporting event – a prospect that will become infinitely more exciting with a win over Argentina.
She said: ‘I was watching with my son and he was so scared because of my screaming.
Most of the Saudi fans arrived at the airport when they were at the stadium: decorated in green and sometimes holding a flag that would serve as a cape. You can tell those who flew in just for the day, at least from Riyadh, because they were given free green scarves at the airport before departure.
Even those who wear traditional Saudi attire – a long white robe for men and a cape-like robe for women – highlight themselves in green or opt for blue leaf.
At the stadium, however, an entire row of men sat in neat white robes amid a crowd of fans wearing the team’s green jerseys – a sea of blue and white speckled with Polish red. Every time al-Shehri or al-Dawsari touched the ball to create an opportunity for goal, the fans stood up and waited.
The Saudis’ unexpected league success has revived the region, possibly in unexpected ways. Saudi Arabia led a Gulf blockade of Qatar in 2017, only ending in 2021and there is some natural anxiety as the Saudis watch tiny Qatar raise its profile.
But this was the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East, and at the opening ceremony, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar was seated with the Saudi leader, Sheikh Mohammed.
“Brothers,” a robed man named Mohammed said at the airport, describing the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, even under lockdown. “Same person, different country.”
Now they are connected by an aerial parade. Experts have tracked the carbon emissions of this World Cup – scientists were unimpressed by the host’s neutral statement — but tourism accounts for about half of that, a report was found. And air traffic to and from Doha is a big part of that.
Those concerns will not slow the flow from the west. And when the match was over, as the sun had just set, the day had reversed itself.
The stadium is empty. The subway’s green line was packed with Saudi fans. Thousands of people going to watch football crowded the airport.
They split up on planes that took them home on the same short routes – to Riyadh, to Dammam, to Medina, to Jeddah. They returned to the beds they had left in the morning. More of an excursion than a trip, but a ride with a feeling that will last.
“You never get the chance to have the World Cup right next door,” said Mohammed. “You can almost walk there.”