Before the World Cup began, the Arab world revelled in the possibilities. In an unprecedented happenstance, strong qualifying campaigns propelled four Arab teams into the tournament. Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Morocco’s Mehdi Benatia were coming off strong club seasons. However, it took only two rounds for all four Arab teams to be eliminated.
The Arab national teams combined for only two wins in the tournament — and one of those was Saudi Arabia’s victory over Egypt. The other was Tunisia’s over Panama.
The quality of the Arab teams’ performances, not just the results, was generally disappointing. Tunisia pushed England but was crushed by Belgium. Saudi Arabia put on a composed performance in beating Egypt after a heavy loss to Russia. The performance was disheartening to fans in the Arab world who were hoping their teams would move at least to the knockout round. In most cases, Arab teams were clearly no match to their rivals.
Morocco’s confident play was an exception. It dominated its game against Iran, created chance after chance against Portugal and drew against Spain. Were it not for a questionable call by the new technology — the Video Assistant Referee — Morocco might have come away with a victory against the powerful Spanish.
Some experts said the deficiencies are systemic and will require a major review. “I think we need to change our lifestyle because it is not in line with high-level football,” said Tunisian coach Nabil Maaloul. “We need to change the way we train. I am not giving up but I think we need two more generations to reach the required level of performance. In terms of fitness and physical strength, we are far from a high level.”
Salah, the highest-profile Arab player in the world, finished the tournament with both of Egypt’s two goals but he could not save the Pharaohs from a humiliating elimination and an all-loss record.
While he left the tournament, there are other players the Arab world can look to for representation.
Mexico’s one player of Lebanese descent — Miguel Layun — went home after a loss to Brazil. He’s joined by Germany’s Sami Khedira, of Tunisian descent, and Australia’s Andrew Nabbout, whose family hails from Lebanon. Nabbout was wooed by the Lebanese national team but he preferred to play for Australia in hopes of inspiring more Australians of Lebanese descent to play soccer.
France also has an Arab contingent. There’s Adil Rami, possibly most famous for dating former film personality Pamela Anderson, and impact substitute Nabil Fekir. They’re joined by France’s star player, Kylian Mbappe, who has an Algerian mother.
Any conversation of France’s Arab contingent would go remiss without mentioning star striker Karim Benzema, who recently won his third consecutive Champions League title under the tutelage of another Frenchman of Algerian heritage, Zinedine Zidane. Benzema was left off France’s World Cup team despite being the squad’s star performer in Brazil four years ago.
The wave of right-wing nativist sentiment sweeping Europe has led many players to choose to represent their parents’ country of birth instead of their own. Stars such as Benatia and Algeria’s Riyad Mahrez both grew up in the Parisian suburbs and call the area home but when it came time to turn out for their national sides, they chose the side of their parents.
In an interview last year, Mahrez’s brother said the choice was taken out of respect for their father, who had recently died. “It was for his papa,” Mahrez’s brother said.
Morocco also had two key players, Hakim Ziyech and Sofyan Amrabat, who chose the country of their parents over representing the Netherlands. Dutch legend Marco van Basten blasted Ziyech’s decision as “stupid.”
As the World Cup reaches the semifinals, most Arab players have been sent home but some ambassadors for the region carry on. They don’t play under Arab flags but the increasing globalisation of the game and the world is reflected on the football pitch.
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