How will nations from the Middle East and North Africa fare at the 21st World Cup finals?
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia and Iran are all among the 32 qualifiers at the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, which kicks off on Thursday in Moscow.
With Saudi Arabia facing the hosts in the opening match, and Egyptian hopes carried by Mohamed Salah, currently one of the world’s hottest stars, football fans across the Middle East and North Africa are hoping their favourite teams can make an impact as Tunisia did in 1978, Morocco did in 1986, and the Saudis did in 1994.
Among the countries regularly covered by Middle East Eye, Turkey are the team that have produced the best performance in the tournament, finishing in third place in Japan and South Korea in 2002, though they have failed to qualify ever since.
We’ve pulled together 15 moments which we believe define the game for supporters of teams from the region.
15. Egypt the pioneers (Italy 1934)
Middle Eastern participation at the World Cup began in 1934, four years after the inaugural tournament (and before the likes of England appeared at the finals).
The Pharaohs qualified after beating Mandatory Palestine, a team made up of British and Jewish players, 11-2 over a two-leg tie before heading for the finals in Italy. The tournament was overshadowed by the overt propaganda promoting Benito Mussolini’s regime, including the home side giving Fascist salutes on the pitch. Egypt failed to make it beyond the first round after losing 4-2 to Hungary in Naples.
Decades later, Egyptian goalkeeper Mustafa Kamel Mansour, who broke his nose during the match, said the team had been the victims of biased refereeing. “All the Italian newspapers criticised their referee the next day and admitted he gave the Hungarians their ticket to the next round,” he told the BBC.
Egypt were not to qualify for another 56 years.
14. Sheikh gets a goal disallowed (Spain 1982)
Kuwait’s qualification for the 1982 finals in Spain – their only tournament appearance to date – was remarkable for one thing: the whistle that never was.
The fiasco began when France, already 3-1 up, advanced yet again on the Kuwaiti goal. Bizarrely, Kuwait’s defence stood rooted to the spot. French midfielder Alain Giresse shot and scored. Referee Miroslav Stupar pointed to the centre spot to indicate that a goal had been scored – and chaos ensured.
Kuwaiti players crowded around the Soviet official, arguing that they heard a whistle and so stopped play (some recordings of the match do support their claims). Then Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, chief of the Kuwaiti Football Association, came down from the stands and onto the pitch to join the protests.
Players argued with players and security officials tried to restore order amid the growing melee, which by now was drawing in journalists, substitutes and ever more officials.
Eventually – and incredibly – Stupar disallowed Giresse’s goal. To no effect: France went on to win 4-1. Stupar was banned from refereeing again. Fahad was fined: he was killed eight years, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, defending the emir’s residence.
13. Germany crush Saudi Arabia (Japan-South Korea 2002)
There have been worse defeats at the World Cup. Like Hungary thrashing South Korea 9-0 in 1954. Or Yugoslavia beating Zaire 9-0 in West Germany in 1974. And, of course, Hungary (again) defeating El-Salvador 10-1 in 1982. But Germany’s 8-0 humiliation of Saudi Arabia at the Sapporo Dome in Japan, ranks as the heaviest defeat for a Middle Eastern team at the World Cup finals.
Saudi were hopeful before the tournament as the top scorers among the 32 qualifying nations. Their appearance was also the third amid a run of four from 1994 to 2006.
But any dreams vanished within the first 45 minutes of their opening match against Germany, as Rudi Voller’s team notched up four goals before halftime, then added another four in the second half (it could have been nine, had a second strike from Carsten Jancker not been disallowed).
Afterwards Saudi coach Nasser al-Johar apologised to anyone who had watched the match but promised: “We have two more matches to play and we can still qualify.” It didn’t happen: Saudi lost their remaining matches and left Spain having scored no goals but conceded 12. On his return to Saudi, Johar was sacked.
Germany have been more forgiving against their Saudi opponents of late: they only won 2-1 in a friendly in Leverkusen on the eve of Russia 2018.
12. Israel nearly qualify without a match (Sweden 1958)
Argentina’s cancellation of a friendly match against Israel in June 2018 serves as a timely reminder of the controversy that has often accompanied the Israeli national team’s participation in international competition, and the refusal of other countries to play against them.
The boycott was most pronounced in 1958, when Israel almost qualified for the finals in Sweden without playing a single match, as several rivals – including Sudan, Indonesia and Turkey – pulled out on political grounds. World football governing body FIFA awarded the matches to Israel, which effectively meant that the team won the Asia-Africa qualifying tournament.
But FIFA then ruled that no team could qualify without playing at least one match, and instead arranged an “intercontinental playoff” between Israel and one of the runners-up from the European qualifiers. After Belgium refused to play, Israel eventually faced Wales, who won 2-0 in Tel Aviv and also in Cardiff.
Israel faced similar problems in the late 1960s, when North Korea refused to play and were banned by FIFA from the qualification tournament. That left Israel only needing to beat New Zealand to reach the finals in Mexico in 1970, only to come bottom of a strong group which included Uruguay and Sweden.
Israel have not qualified since, and since 1982 have competed in the European qualifying tournament.
11. Tunisia score the first victory (Argentina 1978)
Newly independent Tunisia only played their first match as a FIFA-recognised team in 1957. Just over 20 years later they kick-started a run of ground-breaking World Cup performances by North African teams – including Algeria in 1982 and Morocco in 1986 – which announced the arrival of Arab teams at the world’s most watched sporting event.
In their first match at Argentina 1978, Tunisia were 1-0 down at half-time to Mexico in Rosario. But a comeback in the second half, with goals from Ali Kaabi, Nejib Ghommidh and Mokhtar Dhouieb saw them run out 3-1 winners, the first victory by an Arab or African team in the tournament’s history.
Later they cemented their success with a 0-0 draw against then-World Cup holders West Germany and only missed advancing to the next stage by one point after a 1-0 defeat by Poland, who had been placed third in 1974. No matter: teams from North Africa could never be easily dismissed again.
10. The fear and failure of Iraq (Mexico 1986)
The mid-1980s were a golden era for the Iraqi football team, including victory at the 1985 Arab Nations Cup, the gold medal at the 1985 Pan Arab Games and qualification for the Olympics.
Life off the pitch was rather different: aside from the ongoing war against Iran, the team were becoming increasingly answerable to Uday Hussein, son of Saddam and later notorious for torturing athletes who he felt had failed to perform well enough.
Having topped their first World Cup qualification group, Iraq then had to defeat UAE. They were 3-2 up after the first match but then found themselves 0-2 down with less than five minutes to go, ensuring that they would exit the competition 4-3 on aggregate. Then Karim Saddam chipped the ball from just over the head of the hapless UAE goalkeeper, sending an ecstatic Iraq through on the away goals rule.
Iraq defeated Syria in the final round of qualification before heading for Mexico. But their preparations were confused by the sackings of two managers, both Brazilian, and an order that saw them switch their usual green and white kit for yellow and light blue colours.
On the pitch the Lions of Mesopotamia failed to roar: they returned home with three defeats and only one goal, from Ahmed Radhi in a 2-1 loss to Belgium, to their name.
Another Radhi goal, during a 1-0 defeat by Paraguay, was disallowed as the referee blew for halftime just as the ball crossed the line. On their return to Baghdad, Uday criticised the team but laid the blame mostly on the team’s third Brazilian manager, who was subsequently sacked.
9. Palestinian football comes home (Brazil 2014)
A team known as “Mandatory Palestine” had existed in the early 20th century during the mandate, drawing on Jewish and British players and eventually evolving into what would eventually become the Israeli national team.
Palestine itself did not have an official team until 1998, when the Palestinian Football Association was formally recognised by FIFA, following the creation of the Palestinian National Authority. It’s participation at international level has been fragmented: frequently the team has had to draw on the Palestinian diaspora outside Gaza and the West Bank to compete, as players in those two territories have been unable to obtain exit visas from the Israeli authorities. Several players have been killed during Israeli attacks, including Ayman Alkurd, Wajeh Moshtahe and Shadi Sbakhe during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009.
The team had to wait more than a decade for their first competitive international at home, a World Cup qualifier in July 2011 against Afghanistan. The match, played in front of 8,000 supporters was as much about statehood as football.
“Palestinian blood, Palestinian flesh, the Palestinian national anthem on Palestinian territory. It’s good. It makes me feel proud,” said Jibril Rajoub, the then-president of the Palestinian Football Federation in comments reported by the BBC.
Wadi Hossam scored with a long shot early in the first half, before Palestine were pegged back and Afghanistan’s Balal Arezou equalised midway through the second. While the match was a draw, for the team and its supporters it felt like a victory.
8. Morocco top their group (Mexico 1986)
On paper it looked like Morocco would stand little chance in their second World Cup Finals appearance (their first was in 1970), drawn as they were alongside England, Poland and Portugal. But the team defied predictions, topping the group and becoming the first African or Arab nation to make it into the later stages of the tournament.
In their opening match, Morocco dug out a goalless draw against Poland, then repeated the feat against a 10-man England team in their next game.
Their final group opposition were Portugal, who had only narrowly missed out on the final of Euro 1984 but whose players were in dispute with the Portuguese football authorities. Morocco’s Abdelrazzak Khairi scored twice before halftime with Abdelkarim Krimau securing a third in the second half. Portugal hit back 10 minutes from the end but the defeat was complete – and Morocco were through to the knockout rounds.
In the next round they offered ferocious resistance against eventual finalists West Germany, holding on until an 88th minute goal from Lothar Matthaus sent them home.
7. Salah carries the weight of Egypt (Russia 2018)
Mohamed Salah wasn’t even born the last time that Egypt qualified for the World Cup Finals in Italy in 1990, when they failed to progress from a group that included England, Holland, and the Republic of Ireland, despite picking up a creditable draw against a Dutch team of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten who went into the tournament as European champions.
In recent years however the region’s most populous nation has had good reason to take its football seriously: Egypt have won the Africa Cup of Nations a record seven times and in 2010 climbed as high as ninth in the FIFA world rankings.
In October 2017 the Pharoahs faced Congo in a World Cup qualifier at the Borg El Arab Stadium near Alexandria in which victory would secure progress to the finals in Russia.
Salah opened the scoring in the 63rd minute, before Congo’s Arnold Bouka Moutou replied in the 87th minute. Then, deep in injury time, Beranger Itoua brought down Egypt’s Mahmoud Hassan for a penalty.
With the calmness on which so much of the Salah legend has been built, the Liverpool striker stepped up to score, securing passage for Egypt and sending 100 million Egyptians delirious with joy.
“Did you see it?,” asked Jurgen Klopp, Salah’s manager at Liverpool. “The best thing was how they celebrated the penalty. It was something I never saw in my life. Germany in 1990 didn’t celebrate the World Cup like this.
No pressure for Russia then, Mo.
6. Five make it through (Russia 2018)
History was made in late 2017 as four Arab nations – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia – qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in the competition’s 88-year history. In addition regional rivals Iran also booked a place in the competition.
Egypt’s hopes of success have been dimmed by their failure to win a game since that qualifying victory over Congo last October and the injury sustained by star man Salah during Liverpool’s Champions League final defeat by Real Madrid in May.
They are pitted against Saudi Arabia in a ‘Red Sea derby’ in Group A on 25 June, with the Saudis arriving in Russia on the back of warmup victories against Algeria and Greece. With hosts Russia and perennial South American strong men Uruguay also in the group, progress to the knockout stages would be an achievement for either side.
Morocco return to the finals after a two-decade absence and remain undefeated since January 2017, including victories against Egypt and Serbia. They face Iran in St. Petersburg on 15 June, who will be hoping to build on their relative success at Brazil 2014 – but both teams will struggle to escape a group in which the other two teams are Spain and Portugal.
Tunisia are set to play England in their opening game in Volgograd on 18 June, then face Belgium and Panama. They may not repeat the success they enjoyed in Argentina in 1978 – but any group containing England can throw up surprises.
5. That incredible Saudi goal (USA 1994)
It is arguably the most famous goal scored by a Middle Eastern footballer at a World Cup finals: Saeed al-Owairan’s dazzling Maradona-esque rout of the Belgium defence in Washington in 1994.
Collecting the ball in his own half, Owairan runs and runs towards goal, powering past half-a-dozen opposition players before sliding the ball past goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme from just outside the six-yard box. That goal also eased Saudi into the second round for the first time ever, where they were beaten 3-1 by eventual semi-finalists Sweden.
But on his return to Saudi, Owairan’s celebrations were short-lived: by the time France 1998 came round he had fallen foul of the authorities for allegedly partying too much.
“I have seen this goal maybe 1,000 times now, and I’m honestly fed up with it,” he told the New York Times. “In some ways, it was great. In other ways, it was awful. Because it put me in the spotlight, everybody was focusing on me.”
4. Turkey almost go all the way (Japan-South Korea 2002)
Turkey’s World Cup record at the World Cup finals has been erratic to say the least:
1950: Qualified but then withdrew for financial reasons.
1954: Qualified, beat South Korea 7-0, then beaten by West Germany 7-2.
2002: Seven games, 10 goals, and a surprise run that carried them all the way to the semifinals.
Highlights from that last tournament include two closely fought games against eventual winners Brazil, one of which was the semi-final; defeating both host nations on home soil; and Hakan Sukur, now living in self-imposed exile in the United States, scoring the fastest ever World Cup finals goal in 10.89 seconds in the third-placed playoff against South Korea.
Turkey eventually finished third behind eventual champions Brazil and Germany.
Turkey were also victims of one of the worst faked injuries on the international stage, courtesy of Brazil’s Rivaldo during that first match, whose antics earned a red card for Hakan Unsal and sparked outrage among Turks at Korean referee Kim Young-Joo.
Referencing Turkey’s involvement in the Korean War, Haluk Ulusoy, president of the Turkish FA, said: “We sacrificed 1,000 soldiers here to defend the South Koreans and one Korean has now killed 70m Turks. We love Koreans, but that man cannot be a referee.”
3. Football 1, Politics 0 (France 1998)
It was described in advance as the “most politically charged game in World Cup history”: Team USA versus Iran, two countries which had ceased diplomatic relations two decades ago, meeting on a football pitch in France.
And while the first encounter between the two teams took place during one of the less frosty moments in US-Iranian relations, some politicking was inevitable – much of it among rival Iranian political groups.
Security was tight at the stadium in Lyon, as groups of Iranians from the National Council of Resistance, the Washington Post reported, tried to unfurl banners – which were confiscated by French police – while trading insults with pro-government supporters in the crowd. On the pitch relations were warmer as the Iranian players carried white roses as a sign of peace and posed for joint team photos with their American counterparts.
The game itself stoked little controversy or incident: Iran were two up with just six minutes to go, thanks to goals from Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia before Brian McBride scored a consolation goal for the Americans six minutes from the end. Both teams fared less well for the rest of the tournament, failing to make it out of the group stages.
But for once, the barbs between Washington and Iran were forgotten. As US defender Jeff Agoos said: “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years.”
2. Algeria and the ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ (Spain 1982)
No one expected much of Algeria’s first World Cup finals appearance in Spain in 1982 – but by the end, the Fennecs had earned worldwide respect and made the first real impact of any Middle Eastern team on the tournament.
Their first game was against then-European champions and twice-World Cup winners West Germany. Rabah Madjer nudged Algeria into a 54th-minute lead, before German captain Karl-Heinz Rummenigge responded to draw the teams even. But Lakhdar Belloumi scored again for Algeria a minute later – and they held on for one of the biggest World Cup shocks.
The Fennecs lost their subsequent match against Austria 2-0, before beating Costa Rica 3-2. That meant they would only fail to progress out of the group stages if the Germans beat Austria by one or two goals the following day.
Germany took the lead after 10 minutes, only for the game to then become a kickabout mutually convenient to both sides in what eventually became known as the “Disgrace of Gijon“. As The Guardian’s Stephen Bierley reported at the time: “This was European cooperation taken to ridiculous limits.” The 1-0 result served the interests of both teams – but the anger was just beginning.
Commentators from Germany and Austria condemned the players. Supporters said they were ashamed of their teams. Algerian fans later called the match “the Anschluss” in reference to the 1930s unification of Austria and Nazi Germany. Algeria protested to FIFA but the result was allowed to stand.
The charges of conspiracy were not proven – but the sense that Algeria had been shortchanged was so intense that it resulted in one fundamental change: that the final matches in any competitive tournament must now kick off simultaneously to avoid any suspicion of collaboration.
1. The great unknown: Qatar 2022
And that’s just the start of the manifold reasons why the awarding of the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar is among the most scrutinised and criticised decisions in the history of sport.
There are also the more serious charges, including the successful bid was only secured through bribery (allegations which the Qataris have refuted); the deaths of migrant workers, who have been killed and injured working on the accompanying infrastructure; and the social restrictions visitors face, including LGBT rights, freedom of speech and the consumption of alcohol.
There is also the cost: Qatar was awarded the tournament just before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, which cost an estimated $3b to stage. Recent estimates put the emirate’s spend at $500 million per week.
Some argue the tournament is bringing social change to the country. “Without its World Cup and the microscopes it attracts, Qatar would have less pressure over the next decade to improve civil liberties and basic human rights” as one writer put it in the New Republic.
Last year, the UN’s International Labour Organisation dropped an investigation into Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, and said the emirate was setting a “new standard for the Gulf states“.
Football is the world’s most watched sport: TV rights, club ownership by billionaires and global marketing have all enhanced its global scope during the past two decades and seen it break into fresh markets, especially in Asia, Africa and North America.
Is Qatar 2022, with its hi-tech promises and global aspirations, another smart leap into the future whose impact can only be fairly judged in years to come? Or a colossal exercise in geopolitical marketing which will jade all but the most gullible supporters?
Only time will tell – but regardless of the outcome, it is still the biggest event to hit football in the Middle East.