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?

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

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

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

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

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.

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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World Cup Preview: Spain v Morocco

Who? Spain - Morocco
Where? Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
When? June 25, 20:00 (CET local time)

Spain (Yossi Medina)

Spain is living in a dream. Only few days ago, the whole team looked like a full chaos. Without the late coaching change, it was common to think that Spain may be a huge disappointment. In the conclusion of the group stage, Spain is currently in its best situation, as they are on the top of the group and facing Morocco, which already knocked out.

Thanks to Diego Costa, Spain already score the same number of goals as they score in Brazil four years ago. With three goals until now, Costa is in shape to look for more goal and maybe aim Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku in the race for the Golden Boot.

For the captain Sergio Ramos, clinching the round of 16 spot could ensure him a Spanish record. Ramos, who currently made 15 World Cup appearances, can equalize Iker Casillas' 17-caps record as the most capped Spanish players in World Cup.

Spain's match against Nigeria in 1998 is well remembered, but since than Spain won their last two World Cup matches against African teams with wins against South Africa in 2002 and Tunisia in 2006. Playing another match against team from Africa should be an easy task, but Spain would consider this game as their most important match in the World Cup until now.

Morocco (Uri Levy)

Morocco disappointing World Cup will be finished with a match against Spain.  In their last match, the Atlas Lions has outclassed Portugal everywhere on the pitch, except in the box itself. They created chances, but simply couldn't score. Unless Morocco was conceding so fast and early in the game, we might have been discussing the heroic performance by the North Africans. 

Overall, Morocco is a great loss for the World Cup. A talented, varied and quality team, that in 180 minutes did everything right except scoring.  Herve Renard proved his quality as a tactical coach, but he lacked the right planning with his frontline. Morocco wasn't lethal up front, and eventually that is what went against them. Morocco became the first team to be officially eliminated from the World Cup.

Yet, the French coach chose to conclude beautifully the Moroccan experience in the tournament after the last game. “I am proud. I am proud of my players. I am proud of my staff. I am proud in this country. I am proud”. With these words, Morocco will hope to surprise the Spaniards, and leave Russia with a direct impact on the knockout stage. This alone, would be a respectable, though not enough, achievement.

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World Cup Preview: Portugal v Morocco

Who? Portugal - Morocco
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? June 20, 14:00 (CET local time)

Portugal (Yossi Medina)

Portugal can be satisfied from their first match. They managed to end with a draw after long time that they saw a Spanish lead. The major headline is of course the fact that Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hattrick and showed to everyone that he came to Russia in order to lead Portugal.

Ronaldo can break one of the most iconic records in football history, as his next goal will be the 85th international goal in Ronaldo's career. If he will do so, he will be the European international top scorer, breaking the historic 56-years-old record of Ferenc Puskás.

If Fernando Santos dreams about the next stage, he will need to lead Portugal to six points in the next two games. Morocco will be the first rivals and sometimes it may considered as an easy rival. Portuguese history could decline easily it, as Portugal remember the 1:3 defeat against Morocco in 1986 World Cup.

Santos also knows that winning is not always the most important, after all he won the Euro two years ago without winning a single group stage match. This time he couldn't afford himself to drop more points if he wants to qualify for the next stage from the first place.

Morocco (Uri Levy)

After the loss to Iran, the disappointed Moroccan side is heading to Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for a last chance to save the tournament.

Morocco, who promised a lot during the qualification without any loss and 0 goals conceded, hoped to be in much a stronger position after the game against Iran, but all of a sudden - the Persians are up with three points while the Moroccans stayed with nothing, despite producing a great game. “We came all the way here to watch our team making history and go far”, Bilal Selimi, a Moroccan fan, told BabaGol while in St. Petersburg before the ride to Moscow.

As for the line-up, Herve Renard plans few changes in the first eleven who started against Iran, and Ayoub El-Kaabi is planned to be benched in favour of Khalid Boutaib - who was not so long ago the favourite of the coach. Nordin Amrabat, who suffered a concussion against Iran has left the hospital, but will be sidelined against the Portuguese. The midfield that worked so well last match is likely to continue.

In defence, Manuel Da Costa has suffered an injury in training and he is in doubt. Morocco brought only four defenders to the tournament, and in this case it would be interesting in which formation Renard will play. Aziz Bouhaddouz is still suffering from that own goal he notched in, which cost his team a point. It will be interesting to see how Renard treat him, and will he play to over come the trauma.

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World Cup Preview: Morocco v Iran

Who? Morocco - Iran
Where? Krestovski Stadium, St. Petersburg
When? June 15, 17:00 ?(CET local time)

The opening whistle of the 2018 World Cup is getting closer, and Group B seems like the most interesting group in the tournament. With Spain cutting coach Julen Lopetegui who signed for Real Madrid, the whole scene looks different now. Morocco, and Iran, will look to snatch their chance for a second round spot, as the match between them on Saturday will be a crucial one.


Morocco is coming in a good shape to this match and is counted as a slightly favourite over the Asian Cheetahs from Iran. Both nations have sent massive amount of fans to Russia. “I came from Morocco, and met here many Moroccans from Belgium, Holland and France”, says Ayoub Fajri, a Moroccan fan from Aghadir. “In Morocco we are excited for this tournament for a long time now”, he continues, “For months now that Casablanca is decorated with World Cup signs. I believe that you will see around 30,000 Moroccan fans here in Russia. Between 8 or 10 thousands arrived from Morocco, the rest from Europe”.

Morocco enjoy the fact that 15 players on the squad are born and raised in European countries, growing up in few of Europe’s best academies. “For me it’s not important whether a player has been born in Morocco, Holland, India, or if he is Jewish or a Muslim. If he loves Morocco, feels Moroccan and he is a good player - we love him and want him on the team”.


Despite having 18 players playing in European clubs - a record in Iranian football history - the Iranians have experienced quite a difficult preparation for the World Cup. The US sanctions regime against the country. The friendlies against Greece, Kosovo and Italy were all cancelled, and the Iranians have only had a chance to play against Uzbekistan and Lithuania - not a great gauge of the skill levels of their rivals in the powerful Group B.

In addition, Nike, the sports brand that represents eight players on the Iranian squad, have reportedly asked their representatives not to wear the company's shoes during the tournament - as part of the US-led sanctions. When politics get involved in football, it's always a complete madhouse - the United States couldn't even qualify for the tournament, but Trump's presence is felt here in Russia.

In any case, the Iranian fans are filling Russia and their positive presence is well felt. Queiroz and his players will receive their support, and hope to beat their direct rival for the group’ surprise. With Alireza Jahanbaksh, the Dutch League top scorer in the line-up it might actually happen.

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World Cup Nostalgics: Best 5 Repeats at the Group Stage

The World Cup always brings us the feelings of great memories. Many games during the group stage will remind an old-fashioned World Cup clashes with the same teams. Here are some of these best repeats.

Sweden - Germany
1958 Semifinals 3:1 / 2018 Group F

In 1958, Germany was the reigning World Champions and they were two wins away from winning the title once again. 1:0 lead by Germany didn't made any change for the hosts feeling. Sweden managed to equalize during the first half and scored twice in the last with goals of Gunnar Gren and Kurt Hamrin. Sweden made history and qualified for their only final in the history. Can Sweden upset Germany once again?

Morocco - Portugal
1986 Group Stage 3:1 / 2018 Group B

In hot summer day at Guadalajara, Morocco and Portugal met while they knew that the winner will qualify for the next stage. Portugal were the favourites, but they didn't believe that Morocco will be in one of its best matches ever. Abderrazak Khairi scored a brace in the first half and Abdelkrim Merry added one more. The Atlas Lions won and Portugal found themselves being eliminated too early.
Portugal are once again on the lead, but will it be enough to defeat Morocco?

Brazil - Costa Rica
1990 Group Stage 1:0 / 2018 Group E

Costa Rica World Cup debut was a memorable campaign with wins against Scotland and Sweden and reaching the knockout stage. Nevertherless, one of its well known performances was actually at the defeat 0:1 against Brazil. In this match Costa Rica played with an unusual black and white shirts. The local crowd in the mythical Delle Alpi in Turin thought it a gesture for the local team, Juevetus, and it was enough to make Costa Rica as one of the most beloved team in the tournament.
May Costa Rica have another performance that will be enough to get support?

Argentina - Nigera
1994 Group Stage 2:1 / 2018 Group D

Argentina and Nigeria will meet for the fifth time in World Cup group stage, but none of the previous matches was as amazing as the first meeting in 1994. An early lead with a goal scored by Samson Siasia made the Argentinian a bit shockes. Only Claudio Caniggia could save the day for the Albiceleste and he scored twich before the half time whistle. These goals gave Argentina the win, but later both of the teams qualified for the knockout stage.
In 1994 they qualified together and it happened once again in 2014. What will be in 2018?

Spain - Portugal
2010 Round of 16 1:0 / 2018 Group B

Another Portuguese lost, this time against the eventual World Cup winners in that year, Spain. The only goal scored by David Villa was enough for a win in the Iberian Peninsula derby and to qualify for the quarterfinals. The interesting name in the list is Portugal manager in this match, Carlos Queiroz. In 2018, he will make a double repeat while he will meet Spain and Portugal as the head coach of Iran.
With tons of emotion, what will be the end of the Queiroz-Portugal-Spain trio in the next World Cup?

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