Saudi Arabia

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: Saudi Arabia v Egypt

Who? Saudi Arabia - Egypt
Where? Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
When? June 25, 16:00 (CET local time)

The Arab Derby was supposed to be one of the most fun games to watch in the 2018 World Cup Group Stage the, but due to the early exit of both teams, it is turned in to a sad symbol of the Arab teams failure in the tournament.

Egypt’s World Cup campaign has went down the hill after two losses to Uruguay & Russia, while the Saudi one hasn’t prompted to be from the first moment with a hammering loss at the firs game to the hosts and a positive display against the Uruguayans.

The match will take place with many stories and rumours around the Egyptian team. Few reports suggested that Mohamed Salah won’t join his friends to Volgograd; the fact that Ramzan Kadyrov handed the star a honorary citizenship of Chechenia; stories about the presence of celebrities, artists, friends and family members who were wondering around the team’s; Cúper’s contract talks and many more. If you’ll ask any Egypt fan about the way the World Cup was handled by the FA and all involved you won’t hear any good things.

Though, an Arab Derby against the Saudi is a good option to finish this experience in a good taste. Egypt is likely to let Essam El-Hadary play, in order that the veteran goalkeeper, will be able to break the record of the oldest player to play the World Cup at 45 years of age.

Nobody in the country would admit it, but gaining a victory on a the country that succeeded Egypt’s role as the Sunni leader of the region, would a great pleasure for the fans. In addition, many Egyptian players (8 in the squad) are playing in the Saudi league and Turki Al-Sheikh, the Saudi head of FA has donated to Al-Ahly in the past year, was given presidency of honour at the club, and eventually, due to the fans protests was removed from the title.

On the other side, the Saudis, who had an expected but weak tournament want to win as well. Pizzi, who is willing to continue after the World Cup, knows that only a victory on a better side as Egypt would be counted for him when negotiating with his bosses next month.

The Arab World Cup will finish with a regional derby, that was supposed to be festival of fans and Middle Eastern football, but instead will be a quiet farewell for two famous teams as the Pharaohs & the Green Falcons.

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World Cup Preview: Uruguay v Saudi Arabia

Who? Uruguay - Saudi Arabia
Where? Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
When? June 20, 17:00 (CET local time)

Uruguay (Gilad Seroussi)

La Celeste has won the first battle, in hope for many to come, with Josema Gimenez's powerful header hitting the Egyptian net very late in the game. It wasn't easy, nor was it pretty, but if it was so it wouldn't have been Uruguay right?

Maybe it wasn't the performance many hoped to see from Uruguay, especially with the unfamiliar title of group favorites and promising young talent in the squad, but for Edinson Cavani it was a positive one: "We created 5 scoring chances and the keeper (El Shenawy) was the MVP, what's not positive about it?" In addition, the defence was formidable as always, keeping the Egyptians far from Muslera's goal for the best part of the match. But Suarez forgot his shooting boots and El Shenawy dressed up as Superman, so Uruguay suffered till the end.  While it might not have been a poor performance, Tabarez knows he needs to change and mix things up, especially in midfield where the new guys didn't win his trust. Nandez looked out of position playing along the line, not for the first time, and De Arrascaeta didn't support the strikers as well as hoped. Both were subbed before the hour mark.

For today's game Tabarez is expected to drop Nandez and De Arrascaeta from the starting lineup, for more experienced and natural wide players Pato Sanchez and Cebolla Rodriguez. On Friday those changes worked well for Uruguay, increasing the threat on the opponent's defence from wide areas and specifically for scoring the winner; as set piece specialist Sanchez was the one to deliver the assist. With these changes Uruguay will play with seven players over 30 years old in the starting lineup, but Tabarez denies he's looking for more experienced players and says it's all about the current form.

Now it's time for the best 11 footballers Tabarez choose to win another battle in Russia 2018, and I just wish it won't be as stressing as it was on Friday. Uruguay noma!  

Saudi Arabia (Yossi Medina)

Less than a week has passed since their 0:5 defeat against Russia and the Saudis feel that they are on the road for a massive failure in this World Cup campaign.

It didn't took long until Turki Al Sheikh made a statement about this game. Al Sheikh recorded himself blaming the players for this poor match and asked for forgiveness from the Saudi Prince, who travelled to Moscow and watched that game. A few months after the bizarre deal with Spain, Al Sheikh seems to be hopeless with the Saudi football future.

If you thought that the humiliation feeling will end quickly, the Saudi FA gave us a reminder that everything is possible. Three players have been penalized by them, goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and defender Omar Hawsawi, and it's still unclear whether they will be available for the match.

The Saudis faced another problem, as their airplane caught fire while the team traveled to Rostov-on-Don. The FA said it happened due to an engine failure, but at least they landed safely in their destination.

Landing while your airplane is burning and say that everything is fine, that's the complete story of Juan Antonio Pizzi and his players. Even though they have no chance to win this game, the Saudis will have to do their best if they don't want another humiliation like in Moscow.

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World Cup Preview: Russia v Saudi Arabia

Who? Russia - Saudi Arabia
Where? Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
When? June 14, 17:00 (CET local time)

Russia (Eden Roitfarb)

Here we go again! 4 years of anticipation are finally over and suddenly we stare in the eyes of the World Cup opening match. If the football world has waited long for this day, more so have the Russians, that will host a major tournament for the first time. That was officially announced in December 2010 and handed Russia more than 7 years to prepare efficiently.

But are they ready? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look so. Despite being drawn in a comfortable group (which always seems to be the case for host nations), Russia are projected to struggle to qualify further. Only a decade ago they were Euro semi-finalists, but much has changed. To understand that, it’s enough to look at their recent friendlies form that is counting 7 games without a win.

The main problem of the Russian football is the absurd amount of money spent by owners in the local league in previous years. Although this helps to attract foreign stars and improve the football level, there is a major downside for the drive and competitiveness of the Russian footballers who can earn very high wages at home and stay in their comfort zone. Alan Dzagoev, for instance, has never left CSKA Moscow even though he was considered a wonderkid on a global level. Similarly, Yuri Zhirkov did tried his luck in England but returned to the homeland quickly. Evidently, only two squad players earn their living abroad. This type of career management has led to stagnation in the development of the Russian footballer and directly damages the national team. 

However, coach Stanislav Cherchesov might hope experience would provide an x-factor – the Russian squad is one of the oldest this summer with average age of 28.8, and he knows a win on Thursday can change the whole narrative of the Sbornaya.

Saudi Arabia (Uri Levy)

"I'm very optimistic. No one gives us a chance, our players had a disappointing year with their loan deals in Spain, but the truth is that Russia can be surprised in the first game”, said Khaled Abdel Rahman, A Saudi fan with a huge smile outside the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow at Monday afternoon. “The Russians are a weak and fearful team, and against Egypt? Well it's an Arab derby, so everything is open”, he added.

Khaled’s thoughts are not there for granted. Not because of his team's ability, the opposite - the Saudis doesn't have much to lose in this World Cup. The betting agencies give them the lowest chances to win alongside with Panama, and, as Khaled mentioned, this was not a good season for the big stars of Saudi Arabia.

Though, in the last preparation friendly against Germany, although the Saudis conceded twice in an early stage, but looked solid altogether, made it very difficult for the Germans to score more and even got one goal back. “Honestly, I was surprised by the ability," Khaled added. "The goal came as a result of a good pressure, exactly like it came against Italy. These things weren’t happening in a Saudi national team before. When I saw that, I said that perhaps the time in Spain did something good eventually,” he laughed.

After a short period, it seems that Juan Antonio Pizzi is starting to leave his mark on the Saudi players. It is true, they are not favorites in Group A, but they have no pressure and what is certain is that Pizzi will do everything he can to prevent a humiliation in this World Cup. If it is up to him, the 0-8 against Germany & Miro Klose in 2002 will be a foregone memory. Pizzi's Saudi Arabia is a more combative team than what appears on paper.

But will they be able to steal the show in the opening game of the World Cup?
If you ask Khalid, he will tell you: “I told you man, everything is possible!”

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World Cup Warm-up: Saudi Arabia v Peru

Who? Saudi Arabia - Peru
Where? Kybunpark, St. Gallen
When? June 3, 20:00 (CET local time)

Saudi Arabia (Uri Levy)

Saudi football will never forget the 2017/2018, and from different justified reasons. The country held its first football matches with female audience, 10 Saudi internationals has signed in Spanish teams in an outrageous deal and the national team managed to qualify for the World Cup with three coaches in one year. Wait, what? Yes.

The Saudis have started the World Cup Qualification with the Dutch Brett Van Marwijk, who got sacked and replaced by Edgardo Bauza. Bauza himself was sacked after only three months later and was replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi, the current coach.

The man behind everything is one of the strongest figures in Middle Eastern football - Turki Al-Shekih, the Saudi Football Association President, and the brain behind the Spanish deal. He hoped for different results. Besides numerous minutes of Fahd Al-Muwallad and Salem Al-Dawsri at Levante and Villareal, none of the players involved in the deal gained the opportunity to get playing time in a European level.

This fact turned out to be a bit problematic, as a few of the national team’s most promising stars are arriving the World Cup after four months where they played only few minutes of pro football.

Meanwhile, the betting agencies positioned Saudi Arabia as one of the two worst teams in the World Cup. Though, in the past week against Italy, the Saudis produced a great second half, pressured the Italians to their own goal and even scored in a counter attack all made by their ‘Ex-Spanish’ players. Al-Muwallad pressed, Al-Dawsri stole the ball and founded Yahya Al-Shehri who played for Las Palmas, which went through Donnarumma and sent it in. 2-1 for the Italians at full time.

Against Peru, the Saudis will look to prepare themselves for Uruguay, and this is exactly why they brought a Copa America winner as Pizzi as coach. He knows what it takes to win a South American team.

Peru (Omri Tancman)

Two weeks before the World Cup and it seems that finally Peru can concentrate in creating stories on the field instead outside of it. To name some of the controversies that followed the Peruvian team on its way to Russia this summer, Peru lost to Bolivia 2-0 in September 2016 during the qualifications. However, in August 2017 a victory awarded for this game, after it was found that Nelson Cabrera, one of Bolivia’s players was ineligible to play.

Later, in the last game of the qualifications Peru and Colombia played each other. Both teams could benefit from a draw which would send Colombia to Russia and Peru to the playoffs instead of Chile. The match ended 1-1 with a bizarre own goal by Colombia’s goalkeeper, Ospina. Chilean press accused both teams for fixing the match, a claim that was boosted after Falcao was caught talking to some of Peru’s players, including Captain Paolo Guerrero, in order to calm down the game, according to Chilean accusations.

Finally, Guerrero himself was in the midst of another scandal when several weeks after qualification, he failed a drug test and was tested positive for cocaine. Guerrero was banned for 14 months and was supposed to be ruled out for the upcoming World Cup. In a dramatic fashion, on May 31st, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) decided to accept Guerrero’s appeal. The decision holds great importance for Peru who will now receive its captain and all-time top goal scorer back to the squad.

The game against Saudi Arabia will be a first test for the Peruvians to prove that they can create stories related only to football, although this might be somewhat boring, no?

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