Uri Levy

Russia 2018: The most Arab World Cup ever?

Russia is counting down to the World Cup in 2018 [AFP]

Date of publication: 15 November, 2017

With five nations from across the Middle East confirmed for the 2018 World Cup,
On Saturday night, the script that everyone in the Middle East has dreamed about turned into reality. 

With Morocco's 2-0 victory over the Ivory Coast in Abidjan and Tunisia's 0-0 draw with Libya at Radès, the list of African qualifying teams for the World Cup has been finalised.

Except for Nigeria, a regular appearance at the World Cup tournament, and Senegal who will make their second ever appearance and first in 15 years, the North African teams took over the rest of the spots.

Egypt completed a comeback to the most important stage in world football in 28 years, Morocco after 20 and Tunisia after 12. Together with Saudi Arabia, who also qualified for the first since 2006, the four Arab national teams will make Russia 2018 the most 'Arab World Cup' ever.

FIFA's top-ranked team in Asia – Iran – also a regular participant in World Cups - will be there too. That means a record five teams from the Middle East & North Africa will take part in the world's biggest football festival.

Out of the blue

The Moroccan success did not come out of the blue. Morocco is slowly, but explosively, becoming the new power in African football. After years of staying behind in World Cup qualifiers and Africa Cup of Nations tournaments, it seems that things are progressing in the right direction for the Maghrebiens.

Over the past two years, Morocco worked to improve their image in the African arena of sports and politics - and did it well. Following mutual disagreements with the former Confederation Futbol Africain (CAF) president, Issa Hayatou, Morocco backed Madagascar's Ahmad Ahmad for the CAF presidency. When Ahmad won, Morocco started to invest in the game.

By GDP, Morocco is the fifth largest economy in Africa and is already participating in the West African community, ECOWAS, while also making large scale investments in the region.

A week ago the whole world saw Wydad Casablanca win the African Champions League. Few are aware of the hard work the club's president, Said Naciri, put in for the club. Wydad is becoming the first Moroccan mega-side, connecting local football with the wider Moroccan diaspora – descendents of those who immigrated to Europe few decades ago.

Moroccan footballers born in Holland, Belgium, France or Germany are now playing in the country's leading club. Wydad is defining this new sense of Moroccan pride - celebrated on Saturday night after the World Cup qualifiers in Casablanca, but also in Amsterdam and Paris.

Morocco will also host the Championship of African Nations next year, and together with Herve Renard as a coach, who won twice the AFCON with Zambia and the Ivory Coast, it seems like the nation is on the right direction on everything football.

The Moroccan boom is part of a wider phenomenon across North Africa. Tunisia will also join the World Cup via a quiet, stable route and things are looking good for the team, thanks to a quality front three in Whabi Khazri, Youssouf Msakni and Taha Khenissi.

In Egypt, Mohammad Salah and his gang managed to gather a great squad and in Saudi Arabia the quality never ends. Taking Syria's journey towards the competition and you'll get the best generation of Arab international football in years.

The reasons behind the success

Well, many will not draw a straight line between the countries across the region, but they will tell the story of one of the most unstable areas in the world. Each country has its own story and football journey.

Nowadays, when the Middle Eastern peoples are suffering from uncertainty & insecurity, football is filling the gap and reviving national and communal feelings from Africa to Iran.

Football in our region is always telling a story. There are many motivators -  the true passion of the masses for the Game and the repective rulers that have to satisfy them. It could also simply be a result of investments made by an aspiring rich fan that aims to reach higher goals.

Whatever the reason, the ball is there. Middle Eastern football is flourishing and will prevail in June 2018.

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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