Dubai: It may be painful, but let’s look at the first round of matches for the Arab countries in the 2018 World Cup.
Saudi Arabia lost 5-0 to hosts Russia in the tournament’s opening match in Moscow. Then came Tunisia and Morocco, and it is difficult to say whether their first defeats were heartbreaking or less.
The former would hold England to a 1-1 draw but then lost with a stoppage-time goal from Harry Kane and the latter fell behind in the 95th minute with an own goal against Iran. None of them recovered and all were knocked out after only two group matches.
Four years later, but things are very different.
Regardless of what happens in the second round of the Games in the coming days, three of the four Arab countries will have a chance to advance to the round of 16.
After the disappointment of Qatar’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of Ecuador in the opening game of the tournament on Sunday, the teams representing the region shone.
Ismail Mohamed Al Qatari spoke of the inspiration the Asian champions drew from the exploits of their regional rivals.
“The performance so far, especially the Arab teams, may make us a little jealous and motivate us to do what it is now,” he said on Thursday.
Qatar is not the only team jealous of Saudi Arabia, desperate to try something similar. The Green Falcons have captured the international limelight since their stunning 2-1 victory over Argentina.
Much has already been said about the game itself, but it is something true when the football world talks about Salem Al-Dosari rather than Lionel Messi.
It was a masterful tactical lesson from coach Hervé Renard but it could not have worked without the effort, intelligence and dedication of his players. The gritty way they played was welcomed even in Argentina.
Debates have raged about where this rank occupies the scale of World Cup turmoil. It’s certainly there, and easily the biggest since Senegal, who played their first World Cup match, defeating defending champions France in the opening game of the 2002 tournament. They might even compete with Cameroon by defeating Argentina, then defending champions, in the first match of the 1990 Cup in Italy. .
In terms of Arab results, it is fair to say that the only competition Saudi Arabia had was Algeria’s 2-1 victory over mighty West Germany in 1982.
The headlines in the German media that year were somewhat reflected in the Argentine press now – deriding their team and praising the winners.
It is certainly the biggest Saudi result in the World Cup tournament. The 1994 team reached the knockout stages, defeating Morocco and Belgium, but Argentina is on a different level.
Later, on Tuesday, Tunisia faced Denmark, considered by some to be dark horses in Qatar, the team that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 where they were narrowly defeated by England.
The match ended 0-0, but it was an entertaining game and the point that the Carthage Eagles got was fully deserved and they could have got all three had it not been for the reactions of Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
In the first hour of the match, they were on top with their energy and aggressiveness which caused a lot of problems.
Then came Morocco and another goalless draw, once again against a talented European opponent. The draw with Croatia, who reached the 2018 final, was a strong start for the Atlas Lions and another well-deserved point. Both teams seemed well matched and fought each other to a standstill.
These findings did not grab the same headlines in Saudi Arabia, but they are significant. At the very least, these three Arab teams will avoid the fate of 2018 when they entered the final group matches knowing they had already been eliminated. They will be competitive to the end, but the ambitions are clearly greater now.
The Argentina victors are now turning their attention to Poland, who were held to a 0-0 draw by Mexico in a lackluster match on Saturday and could conceivably book a place in the second round with a game to spare. That would really be a huge accomplishment but after Tuesday it wouldn’t come as much of a shock.
Tunisia faces Australia. Both teams consider that the other is their best chance in Group D, as the French team lost 4-1 with the defending champion, unsurprisingly.
On early impressions, Tunisia is a favourite. Victory will put Jalil Qadri’s men in front of a great opportunity for the next stage, especially if France defeats Denmark.
Morocco faces Belgium on Sunday. The Red Devils beat Canada 1-0 but were far from impressed. Belgium suffered from the ruthlessness of the Canadians and Walid Regragui’s men will be delighted with their chances. Saudi Arabia’s victory over Argentina is an example of what can be done.
Qatar knows that losing to Senegal on Friday puts it at risk of suffering the fate of the three Arab teams since 2018. But for the region as a whole, this tournament already looks very different. Saudi Arabia has shown the way and is leading the rising Arab football world.