Tunisia fans celebrates their first goal scored by Wahbi Khazri REUTERS/Hannah Mckay
(Reuters) - Tunisians celebrated a historic but bittersweet World Cup victory over France on Wednesday as they defeated their former colonial power but still crashed out of a tournament marked by a remarkable string of Arab wins over soccer powerhouses.
Car horns sounded in Tunis after the final whistle in Tunisia's 1-0 win as fans savoured the moment even though their side did not make it through to the last 16 of the Qatar World Cup, the first in an Arab country.
It was the third upset by an Arab country against heavily fancied opponents, but like Saudi Arabia's win over Argentina last week it was not enough to secure a place in the next round.
The Saudis fell short on Wednesday, losing 2-1 to Mexico, and host Qatar are already out, leaving one Arab team with a chance of reaching the last 16 when Morocco - who stunned second-ranked Belgium on Sunday - take on Canada on Thursday.
Already the surprise Arab victories in the opening stages have been applauded across the Arab region despite its deep political divisions.
"The victory over France was wonderful and had a special taste... Arab football regained its dignity from the former colonialists countries," said Narredine ben Salem, sitting in the Tunis cafe where he watched the match.
As the game ended, dozens of people ran into the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, often the site of political protests, waving flags and cheering.
In the official fan zone in Tunis, about 2,000 fans had been cheering through the game, many in Tunisian national soccer shirts or with their faces painted.
"It was a beautiful victory and a convincing performance but in the end it was very harsh to be knocked out," Ben Salem said.
"WE SUPPORT EACH OTHER"
In Qatar, Saudi fans celebrated Tunisia's win, another show of Arab unity that has been a feature of the tournament, said Abeer Awaisha, a Tunisian fan in Qatar.
Hours after Tunisia missed out on a place in the last 16, Saudi Arabia were also eliminated even though a late strike against Mexico cut their deficit to a single goal.
"It's enough that Saudi won against Argentina, that is a historic, unmatched feat," Saudi supporter Mashael Hussein said in Riyadh. "It's true we were hoping to win again, but in the end we came into (the match) with national pride."
In Doha, another Saudi fan Saleem al-Harbi said Arab players had proven their quality against the best in the world.
"We hope that in the future Arab and Asian teams reach the later rounds and the final of the competition. We are able to do that and the European and Southern American teams are no different from us," he said.
"We are able to reach their level and be better than them."
Morocco supporter Khalim Farouki, 25, said the competition had brought Arab fans together: "There is a big solidarity between us, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. We support each other."
Some Arab leaders attending the World Cup have echoed that sense of solidarity during matches.
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman - who have mended ties after years of animosity - wrapped scarves and flags of each other's country around them as they watched their matches.
Reporting by Tarek Amara, Angus McDowall and Jihed Abidellaoui in Tunis, Charlotte Bruneau and Muath Freij in Doha, Ahmed Yosri in Riyadh; Writing by Tom Perry and Dominic Evans; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Ed Osmond and Pritha Sarkar