Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia secured qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, marking the first time four Arab countries will be appearing at the event and offering a rare opportunity for celebration at a time of regional uncertainty.
Saudi Arabia on September 6 became the first Arab team to qualify for Russia 2018 after beating Japan 1-0 in Jeddah, securing the second spot in Group B behind Japan’s Samurai Blue. Egypt joined the Saudis about a month later after an injury-time penalty from Liverpool winger Mohamed Salah against Congo secured qualification with one game to spare.
Morocco and Tunisia rounded out the Arabs’ joy. The Atlas Lions secured a 2-0 victory November 11 over Côte d’Ivoire in Group C to delight the Moroccans. Huge celebrations broke out the same day across Tunisia after a tense 0-0 draw with Libya preserved Tunisia’s unbeaten run and placed it in the top spot in its qualifying group.
“Arab-flavoured World Cup. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia — congratulations to us all,” tweeted Salah after the end of the qualification round.
There were also celebrations in European capitals that boast large North African expat communities.
“I congratulate our national team for qualifying for the World Cup. This is a major sporting achievement… and we hope that it will lead to further successes,” said Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi.
King Mohammed VI telephoned Morocco manager Hervé Renard and captain Mehdi Benatia immediately after their victory to offer congratulations on locking up the national team’s fifth appearance — but first since 1998 — at the World Cup finals.
Russia 2018 will top the Arab world’s previous best team participation when Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia qualified for France 1998. None of the three teams made it past the group stage then but many Arabs hope they will have a local team to cheer for in the knock-out stages in Russia.
“Of course, I will be supporting Egypt first and foremost,” said Britain-based Egyptian expat Ashraf Taha, who said he plans to attend the World Cup next year, “but I will be cheering on all the Arab teams in general.”
“I think Egypt can make it to the second round but, if we don’t, I will throw my support behind whatever Arab country can qualify,” Taha added.
The draw for the finals is to take place December 1, with Morocco and Tunisia guaranteed not to meet at the group stages. The 2018 World Cup takes place June 14-July 15 in 11 cities in Russia.
Iran and Senegal also won spots for Russia 2018, meaning that six majority-Muslim countries will be participating at the World Cup.
Arab fans are particularly enthusiastic for Russia 2018 given that it may be their last opportunity to appear at a World Cup finals for eight years owing to tensions with Qatar, which will host the 2022 World Cup.
There have been calls in some Arab capitals to boycott the 2022 World Cup, not just because of the political tensions in the Arab world based on Qatar’s alleged support for terrorist groups but also the controversial manner in which Doha allegedly exploited the FIFA vote.
A witness testified that Qatar paid millions of dollars in bribes to FIFA officials to secure the 2022 World Cup. Further revelations are expected as the New York trial of three former South American football officials continues.
Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.