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.


Canceled or delayed flight? Check your compensation with BabaGol's new partner - AirHelp. AirHelp is here to enforce your passenger rights and make sure you get your rightful compensation. Try it out HERE.


World Cup Preview: Panama v Tunisia

Who? Panama - Tunisia
Where? Mordovia Arena, Saransk
When? June 28, 20:00 (CET local time)

Panama (Yossi Medina)

Panama just conceded six from England and nine in the whole tournament. In their first two matches they tried, but in the end they were far from the competitive level of their opponents. Yet, Panama presented during the game against England a name that everyone will know – Felipe Baloy.

He is not young as many in this World Cup, but since Sunday, Baloy will have eternal life as the first World Cup goalscorer of Panama. It's not obvious, because Baloy is actually playing as a defender. In the age of 37, Baloy find an international recognition.

During his career he played at the places that nobody think about. Except from playing in his home nation, he had short spells in Colombia and Brazil, before he arrived to Mexico. He spent more than a decade there and won two Mexican titles with Monterrey and Santos Laguna.

As Panama national team player he played in four Gold Cups. At his first campaign in 2005 he was part from a team that reached all the way to the historic final against USA. In the final, Panama couldn't handle USA and lost in penalty shooutout 1:3, as Baloy was the only player of Panama that converted his kick.

With a long history, Felipe Baloy is now part of another great moment for his nation. Panama is defeated, but still proud. Now they will face their last challenge – winning in the World Cup for the first time.

Tunisia (Uri Levy)

The final game of the group stage is taking place in one of the most rare cities the World Cup ever took place at - Saransk. Saransk is a city of around 330,000 habitants in Mordovia, a county in the eastern part of Russia. In series of articles before the World Cup, the English Independent described Saransk as ‘Strange’, mentioning that the city has no club in Russina Premier League, and highlighted the unpleasant past of the city as a Gulag centre. For Soviet Russia’s dissident movement, Mordovia was instantly associated with the Gulag. The first camps appeared there as early as the 1930s; for a while after 1960 it the only region housing “dangerous” political enemies of the Soviet state. With this cargo, Saransk will host one of the last matches of this World Cup group stage - Tunisia against Panama.

The Tunisians are already eliminated, but among the four Arab representatives she probably impressed the most. Gave a great fight to England, lost with pride & style against Belgium and all is left is to grab a first World Cup victory since 1978, against tiny but lovely Panama.

For the Tunisians this World Cup wouldn’t be entitled as a great success, but coach Nabil Maaloul has told the media that the effort that the players have put in to the trainings and games has nothing but make the Tunisian people proud. After losing its two stars, bringing in young or anonymous replacement - the Tunisians has managed to score three goals and did not broke apart against European rivals like Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

A victory in Saransk and it might count as a good tournament for the Carthage Eagles, and they will be remembered as the team who had no fear, despite the odds that were against them. But if they lose, nobody will remember the good minutes against England or Belgium. They will forever be those who arranged the Panamanians their first ever victory in the competition. The ball is in their legs.

Canceled or delayed flight? Check your compensation with BabaGol's new partner - AirHelp. AirHelp is here to enforce your passenger rights and make sure you get your rightful compensation. Try it out HERE.

World Cup Preview: Belgium v Tunisia

Who? Belgium - Tunisia
Where? Otkritie Arena, Moscow
When? June 23, 14:00 (CET local time)

Belgium (Yossi Medina)

Belgium passed their first test in this World Cup clearly with 4:0 against Panama and now they are ready for their next match against Tunisia. Once again, Belgium will be the obvious favorites in this match.

The brace of Romelu Lukaku in the previous match made him as one of the best World Cup scorers in Belgium's history. With another goal he scored in 2014, there are now only two Belgian players that scored more than him. The first is Jan Ceulemans with 4 goals and the top scorer is Lukaku's former national manager, Marc Wilmots, who scored 5 goals.

For the Belgian team, the game against Tunisia may bring some memories from another match they played against North African team. It was four years ago against Algeria. Belgium had a bad opening with an early goal of Sofiane Feghouli, who converted a penalty kick successfully. Only in the last minutes Belgium found the net twice, by goals of Marouan Fellaini and Dries Mertens. Belgium needs to do everything in order to prevent a repeat of it.

Roberto Martínez and his players are aiming to finish in the first place in group G. Before playing the decisive match against England, Belgium must ensure that they would not drop any single point against Tunisia.

Tunisia (Uri Levy)

After three Arab teams, two of them North Africans, are all out of the tournament, the last Arab representative, which is also North African, Tunisia will try to retain some of whats left from the lost respect for the Arab football in the 2018 World Cup. The Carthage Eagles already surprised with their performance against England in the first match day.

Then, they almost produced a famous upset but could not hold on. Despite losing to the Three Lions, with two of their star players out to injury, the Tunisians produced a combative half against a much more competent team. Nabil Maâloul and his players definitely have a reason to be disappointed to lose like this in the 91st minute, after Ferjani Sassi cooly converted a penalty that turned out to be the first Arab goal of the tournament that equalised the scoreboard.

Against Belgium they will look to produce the same aggressiveness, but this time to lock the goal safe enough until the final whistle. They have nothing to lose or any fraud expectations to prove right. They will scratch, kick, foul and do whatever it takes to stop Lukaku, Mertens, De Bruyne and the band. Their game after will be against Panama in Saransk, in what will be the last match of the group stage. Imagine if they’ll grab a point from the Red Devils, beat Panama by four goals, while England draw with the Central Americans and lose to Belgium. Maybe then, the Arab respect will be somehow back on the football pitches in Russia.

Canceled or delayed flight? Check your compensation with BabaGol's new partner - AirHelp. AirHelp is here to enforce your passenger rights and make sure you get your rightful compensation. Try it out HERE.

World Cup Preview: Tunisia v England

Who? Tunisia - England
Where? Volgograd Arena, Volgograd
When? June 18, 20:00 (CET local time)

Tunisia (Uri Levy)

The Tunisian national team is one of the few unique competitors in this World Cup that will joy the absence of one important factor in football: Pressure. In a group with Belgium & England nobody, including the Tunisians themselves, is not expecting the Carthage Eagles to go to the next round.

Tunisia is a special country. It’s where the Arab Spring has erupted first and the primary exporter of ISIS militants. Tunisia is also the only country that its recent series of Middle Eastern revolutions, has ended with a functioning democracy. And yes, it is a football-holic place. With a rich club culture within the local league, the Tunisian national team will enjoy great support in Russia. The squad is the highest ranked Arab team in the world at the moment, 21st in the last FIFA rankings.

Despite winning the Africa Cup of Nations only once, Tunisia is counted as a solid African national team. Their hopes for achieving something in the tournament got a serious hit after both stars, Youssef Msakni & Taha Khneissi, got injured in their clubs’ last matches of the season. This have left the Carthage’s Eagles with Wahbi Khazri as the main man, but also made place for promising talents as Naim Sliti and Saifeddine Khaoui, to play their trade in the world’s biggest football stage.

A qualification for the knockout is a far dream for the Tunisians, but a respectable loss to Belgium, a heroic tie with England and a hammering victory against the weak Panama, will count as a major success for them.  With the memories of the two teams meeting in 1998, the result shouldn’t be different (2-0 England), but don’t underestimate Tunisia.

England (Yossi Medina)

England is ready for another World Cup campaign, and this time they want to do it. Well, it might be hard, but the English still believe. England is arriving to this tournament after two huge failures with a winless group stage in 2014 World Cup and being eliminated against Iceland in Euro 2016.

The qualifying was a typical English journey, an easy travel with 8 wins and 2 draws and early booking of tickets to Russia. During the qualifiers, England also had an interesting controversy, while Sam Allardyce was sacked after being involved in corruption scandal.

England found his replacement shortly, as Gareth Southgate was appointed the new England manager. As a player Southgate was also part of one of the biggest disappointments in England's history. In Euro 1996 he missed the crucial penalty against Germany in the semifinals.

With this experience, Southgate wants to lead England to an achievement that they didn't face for a while. Harry Kane, as usual, will be the biggest English name and the hope of many for bringing joy and happiness for the fans. At the age of 24, Kane is making his first ever World Cup and will look for his debut goal in major tournament, as he failed to score two years ago in France.

As usual, one of the biggest problems in England will be the goalkeeping position. Southgate picked three goalkeepers in the ages of 24, 25 and 26, who made together just 12 caps. It seems that Southgate may prefer Everton's Jordan Pickford as his first goalkeeper, hoping that he wouldn't disappoint him.

England is arriving once again to the World Cup full of hope and glory. Now we need to see whether they will sing God Save the Queen until the end or they will need to save their lives from the angry fans.

Canceled or delayed flight? Check your compensation with BabaGol's new partner - AirHelp. AirHelp is here to enforce your passenger rights and make sure you get your rightful compensation. Try it out HERE.