Optimistic Saudi bikers follow low-ranked team across Russia

Optimistic Saudi bikers follow low-ranked team across Russia
Saudi Arabian biker Tatal Obiad and his three companions drive past Rostov Arena on the eve of a World Cup match between Saudi Arabia and Uruguay, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on Tuesday, June 19, 2018. The group known as "The Travelers" are visiting all the cities hosting the Saudi national team games. (AP Photo/Derek Gatopoulos)

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — After a 5-0 World Cup defeat with a match against Uruguay still to come, optimism may be running low for some Saudi Arabia fans, but not for Ahmed Benawi.

The retired airline engineer is following the Green Falcons across Russia on his 1,800cc touring bike with three Saudi companions, known as the Travelers. They have contingency plans to stay on the road with the team through the quarterfinals.

Engines purring, they drove past Rostov Arena on Tuesday in this southern Russian city with zip-tied green Saudi flags flapping at their backs. Grinning police officers and surprised bystanders posed for photographs in front of the 45,000-seat stadium.

Group A favorite Uruguay traveled to Rostov-on-Don after a win against Egypt and was looking to seal qualification Wednesday with a bolstered midfield to support strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Uruguay was heavily favored by oddsmakers.

The soft-spoken Benawi took a more philosophical view of the likely outcome.

“You know, this is the football. In football either you win or you lose, or you make it even. In our first match we didn’t play good, so we lost the game. That’s OK,” he said. “But Saudi Arabia should look into the future. We are going to play with Uruguay. We support our team, hoping that we will win. We will win.”

The Travelers have already clocked 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) on their journey. Their motorcycles were flown to Frankfurt, Germany, and they rode on to Poland, Belarus and Russia, with Saudi pop music blasting out of their speakers.

The 57-year-old Benawi and his seasoned road-travel buddies — a customs officer, a small business owner, and a fellow retiree — say they have met nothing but good will along the way: from border guards in Belarus using translation apps to make sure they could find a route with plenty of gas stations to curious bystanders cheering them on.

“The people have been so friendly,” Benawi said. “I thank every one of them.”

Their next stop was Volgograd, a 500-kilometer (311-mile) drive east, where the Saudis were to meet Egypt in the final group game, but the highlight so far has been the Russian capital.

“I was surprised how huge the buildings are in Moscow. They are huge, man. I love that place,” Benawi said. “This has been a great adventure for us.”


AP video journalist Helena Alves contributed to this report.


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