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DUBAI: On November 22, Saudi Arabia will face Argentina in their first game of the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar. That is to say the Argentina of Lionel Messi. Players will be tempted to view the world’s greatest footballer with reverence, with (not misplaced) awe.
While facing the double world champions and Messi remains an honor, Saudi Arabia’s French coach Herve Renard is unlikely to allow his players to think about anything other than a result at the Lusail stadium.
For Saudi Arabia, this is no time for inferiority complex.
The first World Cup held on Arab soil will have a record equaling four Arab nations, just like in Russia 2018.
The presence of Qatar (host), Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia will be as much cultural as sporting.
As tens of thousands of fans will descend on Doha from all over the world, for once the support for Arab teams will not be limited to a few flags scattered around the stadiums, as has often been the case in previous tournaments.
Qatar is home to large Arab communities, many of whom come from countries that did not qualify for the World Cup but who it is hoped will lend their support to their participating neighbours, while thousands more are expected to do so. the short trip from neighboring countries, or the slightly longer one from North Africa.
Arab teams should, perhaps for the first time at a World Cup, be firmly in the spotlight. More than ever, Arab players have true star power.
Qatar’s squad, the reigning Asian champions, are made up of players who trained from an early age to compete in this tournament, progressing through the Aspire Academy and age group teams for goal. ultimate.
The world’s media, some of which are not always well-meaning, will likely scrutinize their every move and performance like never before.
In the Al-Hilal trio – Salman Al-Faraj, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yasser Al-Shahrani – Saudi Arabia will have three of the best players in Asia, as shown by the main roles they played during the their club’s recent triumphs in the AFC Champions League.
Meanwhile, Morocco and Tunisia have for years had star-bolstered squads that play in some of Europe’s top leagues and are recognizable to fans around the world.
That’s a far cry from some of the earliest Arab Nations World Cup appearances, which were treated with barely concealed condescension by pundits and commentators.
Emirati players who participated in the 1990 World Cup in Italy spoke of the complete lack of knowledge of foreign journalists about the United Arab Emirates at that time.
Often, too, the teams did not help each other, as with Kuwait in 1982 and Iraq four years later. On and off the pitch, those days should be a thing of the past.
Only eight Arab teams have reached the World Cup final since the first tournament was held in 1930: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, Iraq, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Remarkably, until the hosts face Ecuador in the Qatar 2022 opener on November 20, Saudi Arabia remain the last Arab debutants at the World Cup. No new team from the region has managed to qualify since the Green Falcons reached the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States.
This means that the Arab world has had to rely on the same group of nations to carry its hopes for the past three decades. Saudi Arabia have played four more tournaments since their first appearance, while the North African trio of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia regularly qualify for the African confederation final.
These four nations, despite the shock elimination of Algeria, no longer dream of qualifying but are waiting for it.
With that comes, or should come, the responsibility to perform at an ever higher level – and to win. The novelty of rubbing shoulders with the best in the world is no longer enough.
When Saudi Arabia take on Messi and his team at the World Cup, the odds, unsurprisingly, will be stacked against them.
But again, that was also the case on June 29, 1994, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. After losing to the Netherlands and defeating Morocco, the Saudi team played their last group game against Belgium, with still a chance to progress. in the round of 16 of their first-ever World Cup. The bad news was that it was against a formidable Belgian team.
What happened next will go down as one of the nation’s greatest sporting moments, and certainly the most iconic.
Just five minutes into the game, Saudi number 10 Saeed Al-Owairan received the ball deep in his own half and launched into a sensational run that devastated the Belgium defence, before passing the ball ahead of goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme. .
It was instantly one of the most spectacular goals in World Cup history, notable alongside Diego Maradona’s legendary run against England in Mexico in 1986 and Roberto Baggio’s brilliant solo effort for Italy against Czechoslovakia in 1990.
Al-Owairan’s moment of magic was enough to secure a famous 1-0 victory for the Saudis and qualification for the round of 16, where, after a valiant effort in the scorching midday heat of Dallas, they lost 3-1 against the eventual semi-finalists. Sweden .
Things would never get better for Saudi Arabia at the World Cup, despite four subsequent appearances, the last of which was four years ago.
This is something Renard and his players will seek to correct in Qatar.
Africa’s Arab nations have also all been involved in memorable World Cup moments, although these have very often ended in heartbreak.
In 1978, Tunisia, led by legendary coach Abdelmajid Chetali and the exceptional talent of Tarek Diab, beat defending CONCACAF Gold Cup champions Mexico 3-1 on their World Cup debut in Argentina. .
It was the first-ever victory for an Arab nation in the final of the competition.
The Carthage Eagles even managed a 0-0 draw against defending World Cup winners West Germany, but Tunisia’s golden generation narrowly missed out on progressing to the quarter-finals.
Four years later in Spain, Algeria provided one of the biggest shocks of the World Cup when they beat the mighty West Germans 2-1 in Gijon, a result all the more pleasing as the players and the European coach had disrespected their African team. opponents in the days leading up to the match.
But Algeria’s participation ended in controversial circumstances when West Germany beat Austria (only) 1-0 in the infamous ‘Disgrace of Gijon’ game which secured qualification. European neighbors at the expense of the Arab nation.
The fallout from the scandal led to the stipulation that the final group matches would start at the same time to avoid collusion in the future. It was small consolation for the Desert Warriors, who nonetheless returned home as heroes.
But one wonders how such a blatant act of gambling would play out today with ruthless coverage and an army of social media users waiting to pounce.
Then there was Morocco’s second appearance at the World Cup in Mexico, in 1986. Having to return home early after being placed in a “group of death” with England, Poland and Portugal, the Atlas Lions instead stormed to the top of the group with a stunning 3-1 win over Portugal in their last game.
In the round of 16, Morocco faced eventual finalists West Germany but succumbed to a late winner from Lothar Matthaus. Another story so close, but so far for an Arab nation.
The weight of such a story can be paralyzing, but the Arab quartet have a chance to change the narrative and make their fans in Qatar proud.
And what do these fans want? Nothing more than every other fan in the world wants: goals, wins and football they can be proud of. No more excuses.