It was a spectacular international break for the Arab football and national teams. Expectations, hope, drama, tears, disappointment and joy, were all part of it. In North Africa and the Levantine, football turned again in to the strongest opium around, exciting and implementing dreams at hearts of millions, with the final phases of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
Egypt and the 90 Million Dream
After Saudi Arabia already qualified, on Sunday evening Egypt joined them, after a thrilling match against Congo Brazzaville. The pressure at the Borg El-Arab stadium in Alexandria was present since the very first whistle, as it didn’t went east for the Pharaohs. 83,000 fans saw Mohammed Salah scores the first in the late second half. The Congolese team equalized few minutes before the whistle, before the whistle, but on the 95th minute Egypt won a penalty. Salah, who had 90 million Egyptian eyes on him, kept his nerves ice cold, sent the ball in, and sent Egypt - to the World Cup, for the third time in its history.
Salah nailed five goals and two assists in six matches at the African qualifications. This victory enclaved two more emotional stories in the Egyptian team – Argentinean coach, Hector Cuper, and veteran goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadary.
Cuper is well known as the ultimate loser of world football after years of failures with Valencia, Inter and more. This achievement has a huge impact on his career. In addition, El-Hadary, a 45 years old goalkeeper, who plays for the Egyptian national since 1996, would become the oldest player ever to play the world cup, if he’ll go with the team to Russia next summer.
But beyond the personal stories of the players and staff, the Egyptian national dream of the World Cup,had a major impact on the public. Tahrir Square in Cairo, the symbol for the Egyptian revolution and the inner conflict of the Egyptian society, turned in to a center of spontaneous celebrations and festival of victorious football happiness and proud national feelings. The Egyptian celebrations have taken over the social networks for almost twenty four hours,with emotional and breathtaking photos & videos. For the first time in 28 years – Egypt is on the biggest stage of the football world.
North Africa is Next
Near the Egyptian celebrations, in North Africa,a couple of other nations have gain important victories. Tunisia has won 4-1 away at Guinea, and Morocco has exploded 3-0 over Gabon in Casablanca in one of the most decisive displays of North African side in years. Yet, they’re both in a need for a tie or a win, in order to achieve their World Cup ticket. In Novemeber, Tunisia willhoste Libya for an ‘easy’ home game, Morocco willfly to Abidjan for a ‘make it or break it’ battle with thestrongElephants of the Ivory Coast. Two draws in these matches, and four Arab teams will play next summer in Russia – a World Cup record. Are we experiencing an Arab Football Renaisance?
Syrian Fairy Tale’s Last Chapter
The Syrian journey towards the World Cup was well covered here at BabaGol, though its two main moments took place in the past week. On Thursday, Syria ‘hosted’ Australia at the Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia, and after a close game, a penalty in the 85th minute by Omar Al Somah concluded the first leg in a 1-1 tie. The drama returned in double at the second leg in Sydney.
Without their star player Omar Khribin who was out for yellow cards and Firas Al-Khatib who started on the bench – all the responsibility was on Omar Al Somah’ shoulders.And he provided fast. After six minutes onlyinto the game, in a fast counter attack Somah was free as a bird to strike to the upper net of Matt Ryan, the surprised Australian goalkeeper. The stadium was in shock; at this stage Syria were in the inter-continental playoff vs Honduras or Panama. But it didn’t last long.
The Socceroos secured the equalizer after just seven minutes with a brilliant header by Tim Cahill. From then, it became a toughstruggle between the two teams who stayed level until the 90th minute whistle.
The match got into the extra time, when Syrian Al-Mawasreceived a second yellow card and got suspended. Syria played the last twenty five minutes in ten men, and saw Tim Cahill scores his 50th international goal. Australia went up 2-1, with only ten minutes left to play. Syria tried and tried, even with Al-Khatib who came on, but it wasn’t it. And then they got a free kick, 25 yard from goal.
Al Somah, in tears, exhausted but determined, took it strong and accurate, only to hit the post in a dramatically way and sound. The journey was over. Syria lost, and will watch the 2018 World Cup from home.
The Syrian fairy tale was much more than a game. It was a complex and ambivalent story of football and politics; A national team of a war-torn country, funded by ruthless leader,exciting millions of football fans across the world, as well as uniting parts of the divided people, and contradicting others. Refugees within Europe and the Middle East has cheered for the team and cursed it. Rebels supported it, and Damascus residents detested. Despite it was used by the Assad regime for PR needs, the Syrian national team road to Russia was a metaphor of Syrian people’s current situation. It contained all the feelings and the wounds of the long years of the war.
The face of Al Somah, moments before his last shot have said it all. A player, who left the national team after he supported the rebels publically, came back after five years in a quest to unite the people behind a sportive achievement, gave his best, but eventually only the post stopped him from succeeding. Impressive as Somah played himself, it wasn’t enough. Yet, this journey is undoubtedly one of the biggest sports stories of the century,mixing a bloody civil war, Assad, the Rebels, Putin, Iran, Trump, refugees, heroic victories, politics, football, hope and disappointment.
Eventually, the past week has highlighted the role of football in the Middle East, its importance for the socio-political ambiance of the region. For good, and for bad.