Arab world represented by unprecedented four teams in Russia’s FIFA World Cup
MILAN - The FIFA World Cup this summer for the first time will feature four teams from the Arab world. Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia all qualified for the 32-team tournament, set for June 14-July 15 in Russia.
The qualification of four Arab teams means the eyes of the world will be on Arab men as empowered athletes and not as negative stereotypes. It is hoped that images of Arab stars such as Liverpool's Mohamed Salah and Juventus’s Medhi Benatia will be an inspiration for Arab youth in search for role models.
Saudi Arabia is marking its return to the World Cup after a 12-year absence. The Saudis have sought to bolster their chances at success in Russia by striking a deal with Spain’s top flight La Liga, sending nine Saudi players on loan to clubs in Spain.
Of the nine, the most successful player was Fahad al-Muwallad. The 23-year-old forward expects to lead the line for his country at the World Cup after subbing on for the final 10 minutes of a 3-0 victory for his loan club Levantes. The historic appearance by a star of Saudi football could spur hopes the Saudis, under Argentina-born manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, could advance out of a tough group that includes Egypt, Russia and Uruguay.
The Moroccans are led by Benatia, who was born in France but chose to represent the country of his parents.
Moroccan legend Mustapha Hadji told the Guardian of the importance a World Cup appearance has to Moroccans and how as an assistant coach with the current team he's helped integrate foreign-born players, such as Benatia.
“When you have players like them coming to play for their own country it makes a big difference. We have been able to mix together the best of the players from overseas and those who grew up in Morocco," Hadji said.
Morocco qualified without conceding a single goal and the people of the country are hoping the squad will unite to make their country proud.
Morocco will learn just before this year’s World Cup whether it has been chosen over a joint US/Canada/Mexico bid to host the tournament in 2026.
Tunisia is making its fourth World Cup appearance and first since 2006. Youssef Msakni is the star player for the side after scoring a hat-trick against Guinea in qualifying. Msakni, however, will miss the World Cup due to injury.
“We worked hard at our clubs to make sure that we’d be ready for the preliminaries. Thanks to the support of the fans and the perseverance of the players, we’ve managed to book our ticket for Russia 2018. We’re very happy to have done the people of Tunisia proud by qualifying,” Tunisian striker Wahbi Khazri told the FIFA website.
Egypt is probably the strongest Arab team in the tournament. Salah leads after a phenomenal year with Liverpool in which he scored 42 goals in 48 matches.
Salah’s performances in Europe have made Egypt a favourite of neutral audiences, too. His exciting play in Europe has won over non-Egyptians and even non-Liverpool supporters. Add to that a strong contingent playing in leagues across Europe -- including seven in England such as Arsenal’s rising star Mohamed Elneny -- and Egypt could make a run for the knockout stages.