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Focus on Arab nations

Arab world seeking greater influence

July 9, 2010
By Firdose Moonda, South Africa
(Archive)

When Algeria exited the World Cup at the hands of USA in the first round, they weren't just contributing to poor African representation, but wholly eliminating the Arab contingent from the tournament. Algeria bore a two-fold responsibility at the event, flying the flag for two equally expectant communities, both of whom were hungry for success on the football field, but lacked the quality of Europe or South America to seriously challenge for it.

Algeria
GettyImagesAlgeria went out in the group stages.

Africa's tales of woe through the tournament were well documented and the notion of an African World Cup now sounds like nothing but a marketing plan that self-destructed and left the continent with nothing but broken dreams. The Arab world, on the other hand, are the forgotten men of the game. Their footballing failure can't be described as a decline, because they have never truly been on the rise and they can't be thought of as sleeping giants (like Africa) because they don't appear to have the same kind of restless talent pool, slowly awakening from its slumber.

Egypt are the closest thing the Arab world has to a powerhouse, having lifted the African Nations Cup trophy seven times. However, they have only appeared in two World Cups, first in 1934 and then in 1990, which only makes up a fraction of the bloc's representation at the tournament. From 1978 to 2006, at least two Arab teams have appeared in every World Cup. 1998 was the best year for them when Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia all qualified.

Saudi Arabia appeared the most often, four times from 1990 to 2006, but despite their regular appearances, have not been the most prosperous Arab team. They made it to the second round once, in 1994, and lost to Sweden 3-1. Morocco also advanced once, in 1986, and lost to West Germany.

It's not a very proud list of performances from a group of countries who should be packing a far greater punch at the tournament. Many Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have wealth raining on them and there's no reason why they can't invest some of it into building structures and developing the players necessary to become a force in global football.

The first question is whether or not they are interested in doing so. For example, China has the resources (more in terms of manpower than anything else) to do the same, but haven't been bitten by the football bug yet. By contrast, football is popular in the Arab world even though they don't often have a competitive representative at major tournaments.

Saudi Arabia leads the cheers, having hosted the King Fahd Cup, the precursor to the Confederations Cup. Egypt is also football mad, with Al Ahly being named the African club of the century in the year 2000, and the excessive passion of Egyptian and Algerian supporters was evident during World Cup qualification when they attacked each other in turn. That may be an extreme example, but it does demonstrate an obvious obsession with the game. When Al Jazeera Sport's signal of the opening ceremony and match was blocked, thousands of Arab fans vented their fury that they were missing out, so the passion is certainly there.

For now, they have to settle for a smattering of well-known players like Zinedine Zidane, born in France to Algerian parents, who was arguably the most popular Muslim footballer of his time. While not all Arabs are Muslim, the majority are and it's through religious affiliation that a lot of Muslim fans relate to players. Franck Ribery, Abou Diaby (both France), Mesut Ozil (Germany) and Hakan Yazin (Switzerland) are four of the few Muslim players who play for countries that are not traditionally Arab.

A smidgen of stars from the Arab region make it in major European Leagues but should more of them become prominent in those leagues, it would strengthen Arab sides and help to create a global interest in players from that region. That's much needed in a world where connotations of being Arab are often negative and the Muslim culture as a whole has become more withdrawn and inward looking. A rise in top-class footballers from that section of society could go a long way to altering those perceptions, at least in the sporting world.

Zinedine Zidane
GettyImagesZinedine Zidane: Played for Real Madrid between 2001 and 2006

The rationale that the Arab world may not have come to the fore yet is because it has yet to find a good reason to flex its muscle. That motivation may exist in 12 years' time, when one of its own countries may host a World Cup - Qatar is one of the countries bidding to host the 2022 World Cup and has been given a personal stamp of approval from Sepp Blatter. The FIFA President visited the gas-rich country for a domestic cup final and was impressed by what Qatar has to offer, especially after it hosted the Asian Games in 2006.

"The Asian Games is a big event in which men and women compete in 30 different sports and the fact that Qatar hosted it successfully means its organisational abilities cannot be questioned," Blatter said.

The real affirmation came when Blatter said that "the Arab world deserves better", echoing his sentiment when he promised Africa that it would host a World Cup. The Middle Eastern nation must feel fairly confident with this type of endorsement behind it.

Qatar are currently ranked 96th in the world and Blatter said that would have no bearing on the bidding process. However, the footballing world has now experienced the ignominy of a host nation being booted out in the first round and will work to avoid that happening again. This time around the African World Cup didn't produce an African champion, but there's no doubt that if an Arab World Cup occurs, expectations will be a lot higher.