In a region where topics like terrorism, political instability, and high unemployment numbers dominate the news agenda, the remarkable success of Arab nations in the World Cup 2018 qualifiers has come as a breath of fresh air. For brief moments, millions across the region were able to put their minds off the usual dose of bad news, and marvel at the achievements of their footballing heroes.
Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco are no strangers to the big stage, having each qualified for the Fifa World Cup for five times now. In 2018, they will be joined by Egypt, which has often been seen as punching below its weight, given the footballing talent in the country. For ‘The Pharaohs’, it will only be their third appearance at a World Cup, the last a generation ago in 1990.
Congratulations to Morocco for its qualification to the World Cup 2018... The qualification of any Arab country is an honour for us all and the joy of any Arab people is indeed a joy for all Arabs. We also congratulate the Tunisian team for their qualifying.”
- His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum | Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai
Apart from these four countries, in the Arab world, only Algeria, Kuwait, Iraq, and UAE have ever qualified for the Fifa World Cup. And only once have more than two Arab states qualified for a World Cup in 1986, with Morocco, Iraq, and Algeria making it to Mexico.
Also, the dream run for Arab countries in the 2018 qualifiers almost had a fairy tale ending: War-ravaged Syria, where up to 500,000 have been killed and many millions have become semi-permanent residents of grim refugee camps, came within inches of qualifying, their 15-month campaign eventually coming to a heartbreaking end last month at the hands of Australia after 120 dramatic minutes.
Our heartfelt congratulations to our brothers in Morocco for qualifying to the World Cup 2018. It is indeed an honourable achievement for all of us, thanks to the support of King Mohammad VI. We also congratulate our brothers in Tunisia for this remarkable achievement.”
- His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan | Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of UAE Armed Forces
Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco are no strangers to the big stage, having each qualified for the Fifa World Cup for five times now. In 2018, they will be joined by Egypt, which has often been seen as punching below its weight.
Saudi Arabia is almost expected to qualify from Asia every time, given the quality of its team and the training resources at its disposal. The immense socio-political changes that the kingdom has seen in recent months — from the unveiling of Vision 2030 and lifting of the ban on women driving to the crackdown against corruption at home and a far more assertive foreign policy — have also brought a sense of euphoria, especially among the youth. The World Cup qualification will add to this. The ‘Green Falcons’ will be returning to the big stage after 12 years, and there is a good chance that they could replicate the success of 1994 — when Saeed Owairan scored what is perhaps even today the best goal in World Cup history — and make it to the round of 16.
Tunisia, where Mohammad Bou Azizi’s self immolation on December 17, 2010 set into motion a sequence of status quo-shattering events that collectively came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’, is still far from realising the promise of a better future that appeared on the horizon after the fall of long-time strongman Zine Al Abedin Bin Ali in 2011. Political instability refuses to go away, the economy is faltering, and extremism has raised its head, to the extent that Tunisian nationals inexplicably accounted for the biggest contingent of Daesh foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. In the midst of all the divisions, the national team’s success will bring the country together as no other event can.
Egypt is only now slowly recovering from the turmoil of the past six years. When the ‘Arab Spring’ came to the largest and most strategically important state in the Arab world, it also brought with it instability of the kind that cannot be tolerated in a country of 90 million. After the ouster of President Mohammad Mursi in 2013, following massive demonstrations against his government, the country grappled with extremism and major social upheaval. Things are slowly looking up.
The success of the national team couldn’t have come at a better time for Egypt. The Arab world’s biggest country also happens to be its most football crazy. This passion was on display when Mohammad Salah — an internationally-recognised star who plays for Liverpool — converted a penalty in added time against Ghana to take his side across the line.
For Morocco, too, it has been a long wait. The country has been spared the worst of the violence and instability the region has seen over the past few years. But it is mired in socioeconomic troubles and the 2-0 victory against Ivory Coast on Saturday brought thousands to the streets not only in Morocco but also in countries such as Belgium and France, home to hundreds of thousands of Moroccan immigrants. Speaking to Gulf News, Soufian Gharbaoui, 31, a Belgian-Moroccan residing in the UAE, said: “We have been waiting for 20 years, since the last qualification in 1998. This victory will bring back strong memories for Moroccans across the world, especially those living in Europe as the last World Cup [in which Morocco qualified] took place in France [in 1998]. Moroccans under-25 don’t remember it and have never seen the national team at a World Cup. Next summer will be a great experience for them, and it will give them the opportunity to celebrate collectively and strengthen the bonds with the homeland.”