Arab nations eye breakthrough at World Cup in Qatar

Playing on more familiar ground this time, Arab nations will get another chance to shine at this year’s World Cup after a disappointing showing in Russia.

None of the four Arab teams at the 2018 tournament made it out of the first round, with only a consolation victory each for Saudi Arabia and Tunisia in their final group games.

That record-high number of four teams has been matched this time with Morocco in the tournament, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia back again, plus host nation Qatar.

Qatar lobbied to move its opener against Ecuador to Nov. 20 so it gets the worldwide spotlight in its first-ever World Cup game. Saudi Arabia takes on an Argentina team led by Lionel Messi two days later.

No pressure.

“Everyone on the team is dreaming to get to the second round and, of course, some of them are dreaming of winning the World Cup but, for us, we just need to focus on our first game against Argentina,” Saudi Arabia coach Hervé Renard said. “It will be a fantastic challenge for us, but we must be ready.”

Arab teams have reached the round of 16 only three times in tournament history. Morocco did it in 1986 — in a first for Africa, as well — followed by Saudi Arabia in 1994 and Algeria eight years ago.

Eight Arab teams have played in the World Cup, beginning with Egypt at the second tournament in 1934.

ASPIRATIONAL

It’s the first time the World Cup will be held in the Middle East and in an Arab country.

There hasn’t been an Arab nation making its debut since Saudi Arabia in 1994. Resource-rich Qatar qualified automatically as host but they’ve spent years — and lots of money — developing a competitive national team.

They have done it through the Aspire Academy, which hired foreign directors and coaches to scout and develop young Qataris. At one point the academy recruited young Africans, though FIFA later tightened eligibility rules.

The work is paying off. Qatar won the Asian Cup in 2019, beating favored Japan 3-1 in the final to claim its first major soccer title.

Aspire said 70% of that Qatar team was developed at its academy, including the tournament’s top scorer, Almoez Ali.

INFLUENCE

Whether or not Arab teams excel in Qatar, it’s clear wealthy Persian Gulf states are wielding influence.

“We’re finally beginning to recognize the truly global appeal of the game, the fact that it no longer belongs to one region, one country or one set of football associations, but in fact it’s something that’s become much more invested in by people from all over the world,” said Abdullah Al-Arian, an associate professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Some of Europe’s best-known clubs have Gulf ownership: Manchester City (Abu Dhabi), Paris Saint-Germain (Qatar) and Newcastle (Saudi Arabia).

Qatar spent billions building stadiums to host soccer’s marquee tournament amid complaints about its treatment of migrant workers.

The Saudis use the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund to invest in a variety of sports — which critics say is an effort to mask the country’s poor human rights record.

“The fear becomes that the fans, who are the heartbeat of the entire game, get left behind as all of these other actors are jockeying for their own influence,” said Al-Arian, who edited a book called “Football in the Middle East.”

ON THE FIELD

Algeria’s debut at the World Cup was a shocker — a 2-1 win over West Germany in 1982. But the North Africans didn’t advance after the German team eased to a 1-0 win over Austria four days later in a controversial game known as the “ Disgrace of Gijon.”

The Saudis still talk about Said Al Owairan’s Diego Maradona-like individual effort in a 1-0 victory over Belgium in 1994 at RFK Stadium in Washington.

Today, coaches even at domestic levels try to emulate the successful tactics of top European clubs.

Andy Roxburgh, the technical director of the Asian Football Confederation, said trends like high pressing are becoming popular in Asia.

“The kind of high pressing game that Al Hilal have been showcasing lately has been extremely rare in West Asia and Asian football at large,” Roxburgh said at an AFC forum, citing the powerhouse Saudi club. “We can now see a gradual increase in the number of teams who are beginning to practice this.”

The Saudi and Qatari coaches say one of their advantages is all of their players come from their domestic leagues, so they are tight-knit groups.

Most of Qatar’s players have been in training camps since June.

“We have the luxury to be five, six months preparing for the World Cup,” Alberto Mendez-Villanueva, head of fitness at the Qatari soccer association, told the Aspire Academy Global Summit this month. “But other federations have the luxury to have players in Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester, Chelsea. So, I’m not sure which way will be the best one.”

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