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Uri Levy

World Cup qualifying: This week in Middle East football

Egypt smashed their way into the World Cup with a 2-1 victory against Congo [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 October, 2017

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Blog: Expectation, hope, drama, tears, disappointment and joy - all part of this week's spectacular World Cup week for Arab national teams, writes Uri Levy.

It was a spectacular international break for Arab teams. In North Africa and the Levant, football was once again transformed into the strongest opiate around, fuelling the dreams of millions with the final phases of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.

Egypt and the 90 million

After Saudi Arabia, Egypt were next to qualify, after a thrilling match against Congo on Sunday night. The tension and intensity at Alexandria's Borg El-Arab stadium was palpable from before the first whistle, as the Pharaohs looked to make history.

More than 83,000 fans saw Mohammed Salah score the first late in the second half. The Congolese team equalised with a few minutes left of full-time, but Egypt were awarded a penalty in the 95th minute of play.

Salah, with 90 million sets of Egyptian eyes on him, kept his cool and slotted the ball home, sending Egypt to the World Cup for only the third time in its history.

Salah nailed five goals and two assists in six matches during the African group qualifications.

This victory also drew two more emotional Egyptian team stories into the spotlight - those of Argentinean coach Hector Cuper and the veteran goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadary.

Cuper has cultivated a reputation as the ultimate loser in world football after years of failures with Valencia, Inter and more. But leading Egypt to World Cup qualifying for the first time in nearly 30 years will surely crown his career.

El-Hadary, a 45-year-old goalkeeper, has played for the Egyptian national side since 1996. If he makes it to Russia 2018, he'll be the oldest player ever to play in the competition.

But beyond the personal stories of the players and staff, the dream of the World Cup has had a major impact on the Egyptian public. Tahrir Square in Cairo, the symbol for the Egyptian revolution and internal conflict of Egyptian society, became the centre of spontaneous celebrations and a festival of victorious happiness and proud national sentiment.

Egyptian celebrations also took over social media networks for almost 24 hours, with emotional and breathtaking photos and videos. For the first time in 28 years, Egypt is heading for the biggest stage of the footballing world.
 
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North Africa is next

A couple of other nations in north Africa have also scored some important victories.

Tunisia won 4-1 away at Guinea, while Morocco exploded 3-0 against Gabon in Casablanca in one of the most decisive displays from a north African side in years.

Neither have yet qualified, each needing either a draw or a win in their final match to book their World Cup tickets.

In November, Tunisia will host Libya for what is expected to be an easy game for the lads from Tunis, while Morocco will fly to Abidjan for a "make or break" battle against Ivory Coast. Two draws will put four Arab teams into next summer's competition - a World Cup record.

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The final chapter in the Syrian fairytale

The Syrian journey towards the World Cup was well covered by The New Arab, though the campaign's two biggest moments took place in the past week. On Thursday, Syria hosted Australia at the Hang Jebat Stadium in Malaysia, and after a tight game, a penalty in the 85th minute by superstar Omar Al-Somah closed the first leg in a 1-1 tie.

The drama doubled for the match's second leg, in Sydney.

Without star players Omar Khribin, sidelined for picking up yellow cards, and Firas Al-Khatib, who started on the bench - Omar Al-Somah was lumbered with the lions' share of responsibility. He did well. Six minutes into the game, in a fast counter-attack, Somah was free as a bird to strike into the top of Matt Ryan's net.



The stadium was in shock; at this stage Syria looked to be in the inter-continental playoff against Honduras or Panama. But it didn't last long.

The Socceroos secured an equaliser just seven minutes later with a brilliant header by Tim Cahill. From then on, it became a tough struggle between the two teams who stayed level until the full-time whistle.

The match was just into extra time, when Syria's Al-Mawas received a second yellow card, leaving the Damascus boys to play the final 25 minutes with ten men.

Then Tim Cahill scored his 50th international goal, putting Australia ahead 2-1, with only ten minutes left to play.

Syria tried and tried valiantly, even bringing on Al-Khatib, but it wasn't enough. Finally, a free kick, 25 yards from goal.

Al-Somah, in tears, exhausted but determined, struck it strong, only to dramatically hit the post. Inches away from scoring. The journey was over. Syria lost, and will have to watch the 2018 World Cup from home.

The Syrian fairy tale was much more than a game. It was a complex and ambivalent story of football and politics; a national team of a war-torn country, funded and exploited by a ruthless and bloodthirsty leader, still exciting millions of football fans across the world, uniting parts of the divided country, while forcing others further apart.

Refugees across Europe and the Middle East cheered for the team and cursed it. Rebels supported it, and Damascus residents detested it. It was used by the Assad regime for its PR needs, and the the road to Russia became a metaphor for the Syrian people's current situation.

The face of Al Somah, moments before his final shot, said it all. Here is a player who was forced out of the national team after coming out in support for the rebels, only to return after five years in a quest to unite the people behind a grand sporting adventure. He gave his best. He gave his all, but eventually only the post stopped him from succeeding.

Impressive as Somah was, it wasn't enough. Yet, this journey is undoubtedly one of the biggest sports stories of the century, mixing a bloody civil war, Assad, the rebels, Putin, Iran, Trump, refugees, heroic victories, politics, football, hope and disappointment.

This past week has highlighted the role of football in the Middle East and its importance for the socio-political environment of the region. For good, and for bad.

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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