The 450 million Arabic-speaking people scattered across 22 states around the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea include victims of civil wars and extremist acts that have destabilised the region in recent times. Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the war in Syria, US intervention in Iraq, the lawlessness in Egypt and Libya, and the separation of South Sudan are some examples. In these tough times, football is the one thing that has been able to keep the people united and bring a smile to their faces.

A total of four Arab nations have qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2018, their largest representation at the event. The previous best was three in France when Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia reached the 1998 World Cup. The same number was also achieved in 1986 when Iraq, Algeria and Morocco qualified for the finals in Mexico.

The performance of the Arab countries on the big stage had been below par in the last few tournaments with only Algeria making it to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. They needed a big boost and a Herculean effort to set things right. With all the conflicts in the region, a good result was necessary to give the people something to cheer about.

Six Muslim states, including four Arab countries, have qualified for the football World Cup 2018. This is a good sign for the region torn by civil war and brutal acts of terrorism, because football is the one thing that brings smiles to the millions of faces affected by violence and terror

Here’s a look at the four Arab countries and six Muslim states in total that have made it to the biggest football tournament to be held in Russia in June.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Arabia is the biggest country in the Middle East, the centre of the Arab and Islamic world. Saudi Arabia has been a devout footballing nation, reaching the finals of four consecutive World Cups from 1994 to 2006, including a round of 16 appearances in the 1994 edition. Also known as the Falcons, they have won the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup three times, as well as lifted the Arab Nations Cup twice.

Saudi Arabia got through to the second round of the AFC qualification as one of the top 34 sides in the region, according to the FIFA rankings. In the second round, they topped their group, and in the process scoring 28 goals, including a 10-0 thrashing of Timor-Leste. In the third round, they were drawn in Group B along with current AFC Asian Cup champions Australia, heavyweights Japan, the UAE, Iraq and Thailand. Their campaign got off to a good start, beating Thailand, Iraq and the UAE and drawing with Australia. After the first setback, the loss against Japan, they bounced back and beat Thailand and Iraq. Heading into the business end of the qualifying round, they faltered, losing to Australia and then suffering a shock defeat to the UAE. Simultaneously, Japan beat Australia, which meant that Saudi Arabia could qualify directly if they beat Japan, who had already qualified for the final round of the matches. In front of a packed King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah, Fahad Al-Muwallad scored the winner to help Saudi Arabia reach their first World Cup since appearing in Germany in 2006.

Saudi Arabia have been pitted with hosts Russia, Uruguay and fellow Arab nation Egypt in Group A at the FIFA World Cup 2018. The Saudi Falcons can make it through to the round of 16 if they can upset either Uruguay or their neighbours Egypt.

Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah
Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah

EGYPT

Egypt, home to one of the oldest civilisations on Earth, the pyramids and the Nile, is also a football-mad nation, as was evident from the celebrations that followed their World Cup qualification. It is the most successful African nation, winning the African Cup of Nations a record seven times. It was also the first African team to qualify for the World Cup when it took part in the event in Italy in 1934.

Egypt reached the second round of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) qualifying campaign with a bye as one of the 27 top-ranked teams. In the second round, they recovered from a 1-0 deficit in the first leg to beat Chad 4-1 and go through the third round.

They were drawn in Group E with Uganda, Congo and Ghana, who reached the quarter-finals in the 2010 edition. Barring a slight slip-up against Uganda where they lost 1-0, they cruised through their group. In the penultimate game against Congo, Mohamed Salah scored a 94th minute penalty in front of a packed Borg El Arab Stadium in Alexandria to confirm their qualification for the World Cup, sparking nationwide celebrations that lasted for three days. This will be Egypt’s first appearance at the World Cup in 28 years, and their third overall.

Egypt will be facing South American giants Uruguay, hosts Russia and neighbours Saudi Arabia in Group A in Russia. The Pharaohs, as the Egyptian national team is often called, will be the favourites to qualify behind Uruguay, while the rivalry between Salah and Luis Suarez for the Golden Boot will be worth watching.

Morocco, the Atlas Lions
Morocco, the Atlas Lions

MOROCCO

Morocco has also enjoyed considerable success as a footballing nation, qualifying for the World Cup four times between 1970 and 1998. The Atlas Lions, as the Moroccan football team is often referred to, were the first African team to top a group when they reached the round of 16 in the 1986 edition. Morocco has also tasted success in the domestic competition, winning the African Cup of Nations in 1976.

The performance of the Arab countries on the big stage had been below par in the last few tournaments with only Algeria making it to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

Morocco also received a bye to progress straight into the second round of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) qualifying campaign where they were pitted against Equatorial Guinea. A 2-0 victory in the first leg was enough to send them into the third round despite losing 1-0 in the away leg.

In the third round, they were drawn against the heavyweights Ivory Coast, Mali and Gabon in Group C. Morocco started off with a couple of goalless draws against Gabon and Ivory Coast before thumping Mali 6-0 to kick-start their campaign. Khalid Boutaib scored a hat-trick in a 3-0 win against Gabon, setting up a potential final against Ivory Coast on the final match day, as a win for either side would see them qualify for the World Cup. In the crunch game, played in the economic capital of Ivory Coast, the star players of the away side stepped up to wrap up a 2-0 win, ensuring the Atlas Lions reach the World Cup after a 20-year absence.

Morocco has been drawn in Group B at the 2018 World Cup along with European giants Spain and Portugal, and previous Asian champions Iran. The Atlas Lions cannot be written off as they have the capability to pull off a surprise entry into the round of 16 if they manage to stick to the basics and pounce on their chances against the two Iberian favourites.

Tunisia, the Eagles of Carthage
Tunisia, the Eagles of Carthage

TUNISIA

Commonly known as the Eagles of Carthage, Tunisia first appeared in the World Cup in 1978, where they beat Mexico 3-1 to become the first African side to win a match at the biggest stage. They reached three consecutive World Cups between 1998 and 2006, but failed to make it out of the first round. Tunisia was also crowned the African Cup of Nations champions in 2004, winning the tournament on home soil.

Tunisia, being the fourth-highest ranked team in the region, was awarded a bye into the second round of the CAF qualifiers. Here they faced Mauritania, who had convincingly beaten South Sudan in the first round. Tunisia easily made it through to the third round with identical scores of 2-1 in both the home and away legs.

In the third round, Tunisia was part of Group A along with Libya, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tunisia started off well, beating all three competitors in the first three matches before drawing with DR Congo. A Youssef Msakni hat-trick against Guinea in the penultimate match all but guaranteed their spot in the 2018 World Cup, and a draw against Libya in the final match made it a reality. This is the first time the Eagles of Carthage will be appearing in the finals since 2006.

Tunisia will play against former European champions England, Belgium’s golden generation and World Cup first-timers Panama in Group G in Russia. The Tunisian Eagles of Carthage will have an uphill task to make it through to the round of 16 in a group dominated by the two European powerhouses.

IRAN AND SENEGAL

In addition to the four Arab states, Iran and Senegal are the two other countries with dominant Muslim populations who have qualified for the FIFA World Cup 2018.

Iran topped their group in the third round of the AFC qualifiers, ahead of South Korea. This will be their fifth appearance at the finals, having also featured in the previous edition where they almost held eventual finalists Argentina to a draw, before being undone by a 90th minute Leo Messi winner. With a resolute defence led by their captain Jalal Hosseini, midfielder Ehsan Hajsafi and a proven goal scorer in Sardar Azmoun, Iran has a strong squad that could trouble oppositions at Russia. Iran has been drawn in a tough Group B with European champions Portugal, 2010 winners Spain and Morocco.

Senegal qualified by winning Group D in the third round of the CAF qualifying campaign, ahead of Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and 2010 hosts South Africa. This will be their second appearance in the World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals in their only previous run in 2002. Senegal will face Colombia, Japan and Poland in the evenly balanced Group H at the World Cup. The Senegalese Lions of Teranga are definitely one of the teams to look out for as they have a good chance of making it through to the round of 16.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 8th, 2018

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