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Uri Levy

World Cup qualifiers: This week in Middle East football

Saudi Arabia secured its place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia [AFP]

Date of publication: 29 March, 2017

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National teams were focused on their attempts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the Syrian regime using the occasion to win PR points.

Middle Eastern club football took a short pause over the past five days, in favor of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers sixth on Thursday March 23 and Tuesday March 28.

While Middle Eastern nations vied for a spot in the World Cup in Russia, the national teams competed against a fascinating, political, social and cultural backdrop.

Syria
Syria rocked the world with their victory over Uzbekistan. Omar Khribin’s sensational penalty kick in the 89th minute made headlines worldwide, as the Syrians became serious contenders for a World Cup spot before their match in South Korea.

The Assad regime over the past two years has invested in its national team, in addition to keeping the local league running in an attempt to portray normality in the war-ravaged country.

The Syrian team is made up of players from almost every ethnic and religious background in the country, which has to be more than a coincidence, since it’s exactly the image the Assad regime would like to project to the world.

When the Syrian team finally met South Korea in Seoul, the experienced Korean team took the advantage at an early stage, and has already scored a goal after five minutes.

 The Syrians tried their best and were close to equalizing twice with Allah Al-Shablah and Firas Al-Khatib attempts, but their efforts weren’t enough.

Al-Kahtib, had sided with the Syrian rebels against the regime six years ago and retired from the national team, but came back especially for the qualifiers after posting an apology for his anti-regime stance.

Syria’s chances to qualify to the World Cup or the playoffs aren’t great now. But the fact that for five days, international media outlets spoke about the national team, praised and glorified it, is already a big victory for Bashar Al-Assad and his regime.

In the PR field, Assad can mark a big V, against the same western bodies that criticized him, embargoed him and attacked him since the Syrian civil war began.
It’s Assad 1, West 0.

Iran

So far, Iran have been unbeatable in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Against Qatar in Doha, they opened a four point gap in the top of their group and looked set and ready for the Mundial.

Iran presented a quite defensive play in the second half while their forwards were inaccurate and missed good chances on counter attacks. All in all, Queiroz got what he wanted.
The buzz before the home game against China was huge, and the Iranian FA decided to expand the seat capacity in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, from 78,116 to around 100,000.

It worked. The Iranian crowd, who celebrates the Nowruz (the Persian New Year) these days, filled the stadium along with around a thousand, male and female Chinese fans.

Unfortunately for the Iranian female fans, they couldn’t enjoy the festival, as women are not allowed in stadiums in the country.

Mehdi Taremi, who’s becoming a goal machine, scored his 8th goal in his last eight World Cup qualifications and Asian Champions League matches. The game concluded in a 1-0 at full time and Team Melli is on the high way, and the right way, to the 2018 World Cup.

United Arab Emirates

The Emirati team did everything right in this campaign, but somehow things went badly wrong. The loss against Japan exposed all the weaknesses of Amoory and his friends in defence, in attack and more over – in their team spirit and chemistry.

Japan was much stronger, proved its better quality and work rate, while ‘Arab Messi’ wasn’t felt in the role of a playmaker from the left together with Ismail Matar.

If this wasn’t enough, against Australia on Tuesday coach Mahdi Ali again didn’t play his cards well and the Emiratis lost to the Socceroos 2-0, after another horrific display by Ahmed Khalil, Ali Mabkhout and the Abdulrahman brothers.

Mahdi Ali resigned soon after the match, as it is clear that the UAE lost its chance to qualify for the World Cup. The UAE will host the 2019 Asian Cup and it seems that like the mess is just getting started there. Honestly, they have nobody but themselves to blame. A team that loses to all its main rivals on the ticket to Russia shouldn’t be qualifying. Period.

Iraq

Iraq gained a decent result in Tehran against Australia, perhaps due to the fact that they are not in the race for Russia anymore, and they have no pressure on them.

While Iraqi female fans gathered in the stands in Tehran, what is left for the Lions of Mesopotamia is the dignity and reputation.

They did manage to hold the Socceroos on a 1-1 draw, which opened up the race for the 2nd and 3rd spots.

In their second game in Jeddah against Saudi Arabia it was already harder, and after a first half full of struggles, the Saudis found the goal, and he Iraqis will wait for the Asian Cup in 2019 and the 2022 World Cup qualifications.

Qatar

Despite the double losses to Iran and Uzbekistan, Qatar impressed against the Persians in the first game. It looks like the Aspire Academy has started to make its impact on the gulf country. Qatar will go to the world cup, but only in 2022. As for Russia, it is too late now.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis weren’t much better than the Thais in the match Thursday.  Thailand enjoyed the support and atmosphere of their home crowd in Bangkok, but the experience of Al-Suqour made the difference, and eventually Saudi won 3-0.

Against Iraq it was a closer battle, but in the second half Nawaf Al-Abid and his friends pushed the gas pedal and Yahya Al-Shehri scored from a distance, and the Saudis won 1-0. The Greens already have their tickets booked for Russia.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.

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