Arab teams off to slow start in World Cup but fans hold out hope

Saudi Arabia, which has dozens of female fans attending their first international football matches, looks to present a more tolerant image.
Sunday 17/06/2018
A Saudi woman and boy pose for a “selfie” before a wall showing a picture of the Saudi national football team in Jeddah, on June 14. (AFP)
A Saudi woman and boy pose for a “selfie” before a wall showing a picture of the Saudi national football team in Jeddah, on June 14. (AFP)

TUNIS- Arab countries hit a rough patch in the opening matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco each losing, but fans across the region are hopeful their fortunes could reverse.

The quadrennial tournament, which features a record number of Arab teams, kicked off June 14 with a dominant performance by host country Russia against Saudi Arabia.

Russia defeated the Saudis, 5-0, as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz watched. The two leaders, seen smiling and laughing together throughout the match, have high hopes for their teams, but are looking to score more than goals during the tournament.

Russia, which invested $13 billion to organise the event, hopes to use the limelight to bolster its soft power and global stature. Saudi Arabia, which has dozens of female fans attending their first international football matches in Russia, looks to present a more tolerant image as it pushes liberal-minded reforms at home, including greater participation of women in sports.

“I came all the way here for the sake of our national team,” Saudi national Reem al-Muteiry told the Associated Press. “The presence of Saudi women here should be a source of pride for both the kingdom and the team.”

The second day of the tournament proved disappointing for regional favourite Egypt, which fell 1-0 to Uruguay after a last-minute header by Jose Maria Gimenez. The Pharaohs, however, remain optimistic, because injured star striker Mohamed Salah is expected in the second match against Russia on June 19.

Former Egypt manager Bob Bradley told MLSsoccer.com he is optimistic about the team’s chances but that it would “go into the next game knowing their chance to move out of the group is on the line.”

The Moroccans also suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat in their first match. Despite a tough-fought match, the team allowed an own goal in the 95th minute, handing Iran its first World Cup victory since 1998.

“It was the worst thing that could have happened in injury time,” Morocco head coach Herve Renard told BBC Sport. “We can only blame ourselves. We gave away a free kick, then we scored against our own team.”

Despite tough odds in a group stacked with England, Belgium and Panama, Tunisian fans were confident their team could put on a strong performance.

“I’m hopeful based on the last performances we’ve seen. We have a good team,” said Tunisian fan Ahmed Nasri.

With the tournament’s opening games around Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that concludes Ramadan, fans throughout the region gathered alongside family and friends to watch the matches.

Odds for viewership of the tournament in the region were boosted after Qatari sports network beIN gave in to regional pressure and announced it would show 22 of the tournament’s games for free across the Middle East and North Africa, where it has broadcasting rights.

The decision came after an outcry from fans faced with restricted access to the games due to high broadcasting fees.

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