The Arab Collapse

"Even if we take Egypt's defence, Morocco's midfield, Tunisia’s front line and Saudi money, I'm not sure that this team can go through one of the groups in this World Cup," says Mohamed Nagy Salami, an Egyptian journalist, at Domodedovo Airport - the central station of this World Cup.

A record number of four Arab teams have qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, all were eliminated after two games.

Many expected that at least one of the Arab teams will become the exciting team of the tournament, and they were disappointed when these teams crashed against better European and South American rivals.

What are the main causes of failure? Does it means something about Arab football as a whole? And does it matter at all?

 Egypt and Saudi Arabia fans, tryin to understand the failure (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Egypt and Saudi Arabia fans, tryin to understand the failure (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Approach, conduct and planning

“Why didn’t Salah play if he was fit, and how did it make the other players feel?”, I asked. "I'm still not speculating about who's supposed to play and when, and certainly not about feelings. The whole story will ask the staff”, Mahmoud Hassan Trezeguet told me after Egypt's loss to Uruguay in Ekaterinburg. "You're asking the wrong person."

A standard answer from a football player to a journalist, but it holds quite a bit. In order to succeed in the World Cup, you also need to know how to manage, how to plan, what standards should be followed in preparing for and during this kind tournament.

The Pharaohs, which has fulfilled the dream of 105 million Egyptians and returned to the World Cup after 28 years, gave an example of how you don't prepare for such a tournament. It began in May with a saga of the aircraft and the use of the image of Mohammed Salah the by the FA without the player’s approval. It created problems with the player's sponsors and between him and the team leaders; Also locating the training base in Grozny, Chechnya made the players to take long flights for every match. A number of sources claim that Ramzan Kadyrov, the ruler of Chechnya, demanded that Egypt and Salah will be his special guests, what left the FA without an option to reject it.

Another hot issue was the treatment of Salah's injury and his problematic return to the lineup. The announcement that he was fit when it was clear that he was not, with placing him on the bench but preventing his participation in the game, and the choose to get back to the lineup in the most important game in the history of Egypt was neither wise nor professional.

Into this hustle came the presence of families and close associates to the the camp. Sources in the technical staff testified that "there were moments when it would not have been a team preparing for the World Cup, but for a festival, an entertainment."

Egypt, which was apparently one of the favorites among the Arab teams to reach the knockout stage, reached its third tournament in history as a complete mess. Salah’s injury, the fact that Uruguay is a much more strong and quality team, Russia as the hosts, and the odds were gone.

The match against Saudi Arabia was just the [rotten] cherry on the top.

20,000 Egyptians returned home with a disappointed feeling. "Salah was fit for a 60% chance to play, Ahmed Fathy with an own goal, it simply was not it," says Salma, an Egyptian fan who went to the match in St. Petersburg. “One thing is sure - I'll never underestimate the host team ever again. The Russian crowd had such a powerful impact that night. It was too much for us”.

Grade: 2.5/10

 Mohamed Salah, unclear situation for him and his team (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Mohamed Salah, unclear situation for him and his team (Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Money Should be Invested Wisely

Saudi Arabia had no qualifying expectations. Although the Saudi league considered as the Premier League of the Arab world, with the highest salaries in Western Asia and the Middle East, perhaps the highest among the Arab countries, it was clear that they will not go through Group A.
The defeat in the opening match had a devastating impact for the continuation of the tournament. In a way, it made a throwback to 2002, when they lost 8-0 against Germany. The criticism was so imminent that even after a game against Uruguay, where they played not bad at all, nobody counted them as a legitimate competitor.

The lesson for Turki Al-Sheikh and the Saudis is that massive investment in the local league and in the big clubs does not guarantee success on the national team level. In addition, the failed experiment with players loaned to Spanish teams proved that it did not have any positive effect on the team. Salem Al-Dawsri improved, but it’s not enough. In contrast, the stars who had to get in good shape were rusty and did not keep pace with the Russians and the Uruguayans. Though, after the victory against Egypt, in Saudi Arabia there are those who do not see this tournament as a failure.

"You have to tell the truth. We are a weak national team. You have to think positive. On other days, Pizzi was already sent home," says Abdel Aziz Azam, who is in Moscow and followed Saudi Arabia's since first game in the tournament. "I am glad that Turki issued a statement of support in the coach and the players and decided to let him continue. That means a lot to us, and I hope it will continue in the future”.

Grade: 3.5/10

 Salem Al-Dawsari, the only one that got better in Spain (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Salem Al-Dawsari, the only one that got better in Spain (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Know Your Place
The Moroccan professional experience, together with Egypt, constituted for many the Arab hope for surprise in the World Cup. An impressive team, mostly European based, talented players who are playing in European big teams and an excellent coach, who is both charismatic and handsome. But at the World Cup, certainly in a group with the European champions, one of the best teams in the world and one of the best teams in Asia, that's not enough.

Renard is an excellent coach, the only one to win consecutive Africa Cup of Nations twice with two different teams, is considered the best coach on the black continent. At the same time, he is inexperienced in the World Cup, and it was obvious. Morocco's offensive line was made up of too many players and too few true strikers.

Morocco played well in all of its of its matches, but could not ‘kill’ their opponent.

Mehdi Benatia was stressed, Hakim Ziyech, player of the year in the Netherlands, wasn’t convincing, and in general the Moroccans seemed to pay the price of the experience in such tournaments. "Our free kicks is what killed us. You just can not get to a tournament like that, without a single organized play, without a certain approach to set pieces on both sides of the pitch“, says Benjamin Hajj of Maghrib Foot, A Moroccan football blogger who followed the team in all the qualifications matches, and also here in Russia, in matches and trainings. "I think both games had 15 free kicks that we managed to do nothing with it. Our opponents had half of this amount and scored twice, once in the 5th minute, and again in the 95th minute. Football," he concluded sourly. Although against Spain, Morocco has prevailed a serious amount of its talent, what was impressive by all counts, but too little too late as well.

Grade: 4/10

 Herve Renard, great in Africa, lack of World Cup experience (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Herve Renard, great in Africa, lack of World Cup experience (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Solid but Helpless

Tunisia had no pressure on its back before the tournament.

They provided a very close game against England until Harry Kane scored in 91st. Against Belgium they dropped defence completely and were part of one of the most enjoyable to watch games in tournament.

Yet, the Tunisians, who for a few moments seemed like the best MENA representative in the tournament, paid for the lack of authority of the association.

About a month and a half before the tournament, the Carthage Eagles were prominently featured in the most impressive front line of Arabism, with three players who shared almost 60 goals in the previous season. Two of them, Yousef Msakni and Taha Khneissi, won their league championships in Qatar and Tunisia, several rounds to finish the season. Instead of asking the players to watch out for themselves and tell the clubs to deduct their game minutes or to direct them to a specific training program, the association did nothing.

The two players were injured in the garbage time of the season, suffering long-term injuries that effectively ruined Tunisia’s small chance of sensation at the difficult group to which they were drawn. "No one really thought we'd get anything with such a lottery, so they just gave the players a plan of preparation, that kept properly, which is important to do in the year of the World Cup," said Djamal Farouk Abdu, a Tunisian football journalist. “At least we won Panama. First World Cup victory in 40 years - since that one against Mexico in 1978. That’s fun!”

Grade: 6/10

 Tunisia, looking for the bright side with their first World Cup win since 1978 (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Tunisia, looking for the bright side with their first World Cup win since 1978 (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Is That What Really Matters?

When you look at how the Arab teams lost in the World Cup, it is impossible not to understand the frustration. A resounding defeat in the opening game, Egypt to Uruguay in the 89th minute, Morocco to Iran in the 95th minute, Tunisia to England in the 91st minute.

Goals in the last few minutes are a result of concentration, of fitness, and often, of luck.

Who believed that Aziz Bouhadouz, who only entered 18 minutes earlier as a striker, would score such a glorious own goal that would put Iran, the Persian representative of the Middle East, that only one shot that went wide prevented them from qualifying from the first spot in Group B one of the hardest in the competition. Who believed that Mohammed Salah would suffer an injury in the Champions League final, and that 90 minutes of Morocco against Portugal will be great but will not produce one shot on goal.

In this campaign, the Arab teams lacked the concentration, as well as the luck. When we come to examine the achievements of the Arab national teams in the World Cup, we must also put things in proportion.

 Morocco after the match against Spain, lack of concentration and luck (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Morocco after the match against Spain, lack of concentration and luck (Francois Nel/Getty Images)

A known Masri fan in Moscow offers a more optimistic outlook. "Right. It's embarrassing and annoying on the one hand, because the whole world looks at you, but when you think about it in depth it's not so bad. What is important here is that after many years of suffering, you look at the fragile Egypt, the post-revolution Tunisia, the changing Saudi Arabia, and Morocco with all the stigmas that Europeans has over the immigrants, as legitimate countries participating in this world festival called the World Cup. This is the magic of the World Cup, and the truth is that for the younger generation it is very important to get to the tournament. The fact that they will talk about us as members of this almost closed club is good. Seven years ago, our whole area was in a state of chaos and suffering. I believe we are in the process, and that's just another step in the way”.

The very fact that the Arab teams competitive presence in the tournament, is their real achievement in this World Cup. After all, in terms of football infrastructure, football thinking, facilities and resources, all these teams are way behind Europe and South America. Even if not all the parameters, then certainly in some.

The achievement lies in the hope that they gave to the fans, who sat and gathered in Tunis, Cairo, Casablanca, expecting a miracle, exactly like Eduardo Galeano wrote in his book.

The disappointment is clear, and it is doubtful when we will see another World Cup like this, where most of the West African giants failed to qualify, and made room for three North African teams. Think about it. For the Egyptian kid, who has seen Egypt in the World Cup, and perhaps now understands how hard it is to work to improve and be on a world-class level, and that motivates him. It is important to remember that these teams represent hope in places where, on a regular basis, during the year, or once every four years, there are not too many sources of inspiration, joy or pride.

So maybe it's not so surprising that they did not go through, and that’s not even the main thing here. "I'm not disappointed with our show, I'm very happy with our performance and I'm very proud. I am very proud of the players, very proud of the team and I am very proud of this country”. Thus, when he strangled the tears, Renard, the French coach of Morocco, summed it up.

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