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Uri Levy

Your guide to Middle East teams at the 2018 World Cup

A downloadable version of this image is at the bottom of this feature [TheNewArab]

Date of publication: 11 June, 2018

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Five Middle East and North African national teams will play in Russia 2018, the most Middle Eastern World Cup ever.
The 2018 World Cup in Russia is set to welcome five Middle East and North African national teams to the tournament - the most Middle Eastern World Cup ever.

With just a few days until opening match kicks off, it's the perfect time to meet the region's representatives in football's most prestigious competition.

EGYPT

Nickname:
Watch out for the red strip of the Pharoahs, who kick off
their tournament against Uruguay on Friday 15 June [Getty]
 The Pharaohs

Coach: Hector Cúper

Star: Mohamed Salah, Liverpool

Arriving to Russia as: A promising squad, with all hopes resting on the shoulder of one player

Expectations: Round of 16. 

Egypt has returned to the World Cup after an absence of 28 years, and the nation has gone crazy for the Pharoahs since the qualification match against Congo Brazzaville. But all year, with every twist and turn of Mohamed Salah's contribution to Liverpool's fantastic season, the expectations have been raised higher and higher.

Egypt is attending its third World Cup finals, and they are bringing one of the planet's best footballers.

That said, in the final match of the European season - the Champions League final - Egypt's dream suffered a huge blow as a collision with Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos dislocated Saleh's shoulder.

It was thought the injury would sideline him for four weeks, and badly hit the Pharaohs' training period.

But even though, aside from Salah, Cúper has brought only two natural strikers to Egypt - Marwan Mohsen and Mahmoud Kahraba, it would be wrong to underestimate the Egyptian squad's talent.

Ramadan Sobhy, Mahmoud Trezeguet, Amr Warda and Ahmed Hegazy are coming to the finals after a positive season, and with Abdallah Said and Essam El-Hadary's experience, Egypt definitely has a decent team sheet any day of the week.

While Egypt represent the best chance for Arab fans at the World Cup, it has become clear from every friendly warm-up match that they are just not the same team without Salah.

A 1-1 draw with Kuwait, a lucky 0-0 with Colombia and a 3-0 hammering loss to Belgium. In fact, since that famous match against Congo, Egypt haven't won a single match in six games.

In March, they were dominating Portugal 1-0 and looked good, but after Salah was withdrawn, the red-shirted Pharoahs conceded two goals and lost the game.

According to multiple reports, Salah's recovery is going well - and every Egyptian is praying for the player's full restoration to match fitness.

The hopes of Egypt qualifying as one of the top two teams in Group A - which also holds Uruguay, the Russian hosts and the Saudis - all laying on one shoulder of the kid from Nagrig. Ya rab.

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Essam El Hadary (Al Taawoun, Saudi Arabia), Mohamed El-Shennawy (Al Ahly), Sherif Ekramy (Al Ahly).

Defenders: Ahmed Fathi, Saad Samir, Ayman Ashraf (all Al Ahly), Mahmoud Hamdy (Zamalek), Mohamed Abdel-Shafy (Al Fateh, Saudi Arabia), Ahmed Hegazi (West Brom), Ali Gabr (Zamalek), Ahmed Elmohamady (Aston Villa, England), Omar Gaber (Los Angeles FC, USA).

Midfielders: Tarek Hamed, (Zamalek), Shikabala (Zamalek), Abdallah Said (Al Ahli), Sam Morsy (Wigan Athletic), Mohamed Elneny (Arsenal), Ramadan Sobhi (Stoke City, England), Mahmoud Hassan (Kasimpasa, Turkey), Amr Warda (Atromitos Athens, Greece).

Forwards: Marwan Mohsen (Al Ahly), Mahmoud Kahraba (Al Ittihad, Saudi Arabia), Mohamed Salah (Liverpool, England).

Egypt's national football team players take part in a training session on June 5, in Brussels on the eve of the Belgium hammering [Getty]

 

SAUDI ARABIA

 

The Saudis are a big name in Asian football and were
the first West Asian squad to qualify [Getty]


Nickname: The Green Falcons

Coach: Juan Antonio Pizzi

Star: Mohamed Al-Sahlawy

Arriving to Russia as: One of the tournament's minnows

Expectations: Gaining a respectable result in at least one match.


Saudi football fans will never forget the 2017/2018 season, and for a variety of good reasons. 

In this historic year, the ultra-conservative country held its first football matches in front of female fans, a delegation of 10 Saudi internationals were signed to Spanish teams in an outrageous deal and the national team managed to qualify for the World Cup - despite getting through three coaches in one year.

The Saudis started their World Cup qualification campaign with the Dutch coach Brett Van Marwijk, who was sacked and replaced by Edgardo Bauza. Bauza himself was sacked after only three months, and was replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi, the current coach.

The man behind everything is one of the leading figures in Middle Eastern football - Turki Al-Shekih, the Saudi Football Association President, and the brains behind the Spanish deal which saw 10 Saudi players head for one of the most competitive leagues in Europe in order to gain valuable match and training experience.

He had probably hoped for a different result. While Fahd al-Muwallad and Salem al-Dawsri have had some game time at Levante and Villareal respectively, none of the other players involved in the deal have had the opportunity to test their skills at a European level.

The deal has turned somewhat problematic, as the national team's most promising stars are arriving at the World Cup having only played a few minutes of professional football in the past four months.

The Saudis are a big name in Asian football and were the first West Asian squad to qualify, though they arrive at this World Cup as one of the tournament's minnows. The betting agencies are ranking the Green Falcons the joint weakest team in the tournament, alongside Panama.

Saudi Arabia have got no real expectations from the tournament - their fifth - except putting on a respectable display, and not embarassing themselves too much in the Arab derby against Egypt, on Monday 25 June.

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Mohammed Al Owais (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Mosailem (Al Ahli), Abdullah Al Mayouf (Al Hilal).

Defenders: Mansoor Al Harbi (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Shahrani (Al Hilal) Mohammed Al Breik (Al Hilal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al Nassr), Ali Al Bulaihi (Al Hilal).

Midfielders: Abdullah Al Khaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Al Khaibri (Al Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal), Taiseer Al Jassim (Al Ahli), Houssain Al Mogahwi (Al Ahli), Salman Al Faraj, Mohamed Kanno (both Al Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al Shabab), Salem Al Dawsari (Al Hilal), Yahya Al Shehri (Al Nassr), Fahad Al Muwallad (Al Ittihad).

Forwards: Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al Ahli).

The Saudi team will be staying at the five-star Belmond Grand Hotel during the World Cup in Russia [Getty]

 

MOROCCO

 

The majority of Morocco's players are Europeans
with Moroccan roots [Getty]


Nickname:
The Atlas Lions

Coach: Herve Renard

Star: Hakim Ziyech

Arriving to Russia as: Underdogs aiming to shock the world

Expectations: Round of 16.

The Moroccans have had a fantastic footballing year. Wydad Casablanca won the African Champions League, while more and more European-born Moroccans have signed for clubs in the domestic league. Meanwhile, the 2026 World Cup bid has made headlines worldwide - and the national team has grabbed a World Cup spot after 20 long years, after a campaign in which they didn't concede a single goal.

There's no doubt, that since Herve Renard signed on to lead the national team in 2016, the Atlas Lions have not stopped improving.

The first coach to win the CAF Africa Cup of Nations with two different countries (Zambia and Ivory Coast), Renard is respected throughout the footballing world, and Moroccos's victory against the Ivory Coast in Abidjan will be remembered as one of the best displays of an African side in World Cup qualifications, ever - simply a divine tactical display.

The Moroccans have an extremely talented squad, with the majority of players having come up through European leagues and qualifying for the national team through their heritage rather than birth.

Mehdi Benattia of Juventus, Hakim Ziyech (the Dutch Eredivisie Player of the Year), Amine Harit of Schalke 04 Real Madrid's Achraf Hakimi are just some of the names which decorate the Atlas Lions' teamsheet.

Renard and his players will look to surprise the whole world and qualify from a near-impossible Group B, which also features Spain, Portugal and Iran.

But there is a route to the knock-out stages.

If Iran lose all three group games - to Morocco, Spain and Portugal, finishing bottom of the group - Morocco just needs (somehow) to draw against both Portugal (currently ranked the fourth best team in the world by FIFA) and Spain (10th).

With such a squad and the tremendous support of thousands of the Dima Maghreb fans who have made their way to Russia, anything is possible. In the past few months thousands of signs have festooned Casablanca: "Russia, we are coming." They have arrived. 

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Mounir El Kajoui (Numancia, Spain), Yassine Bounou (Girona, Spain), Ahmad Reda Tagnaouti (Ittihad Tanger).

Defenders: Mehdi Benatia (Juventus, Italy), Romain Saiss (Wolverhampton, England), Manuel Da Costa (Basaksehir, Turkey), Nabil Dirar (Fenerbahce, Turkey), Achraf Hakimi (Real Madrid, Spain), Hamza Mendyl (Lille, France).

Midfielders: M'barek Boussoufa (Al Jazira, UAE), Karim El Ahmadi (Feyenoord, Holland), Youssef Ait Bennasser (Caen, France), Sofyan Amrabat (Feyenoord, Holland), Younes Belhanda (Galatasaray, Turkey), Faycal Fajr (Getafe, Spain), Amine Harit (Schalke 04, Germany).

Forwards: Khalid Boutaib (Malatyaspor, Turkey), Aziz Bouhaddouz (Saint Pauli, Germany), Ayoub El Kaabi (Renaissance Berkane), Nordin Amrabat (on loan to Leganes, Spain, from Watford, England), Mehdi Carcela (Standard de Liege, Belgium), Hakim Ziyech (Ajax, Holland), Youssef En Nesyri (Malaga, Spain).

Fans show their support ahead of the friendly match against Serbia [Getty]



TUNISIA

 

Tunisia, the Carthage Eagles, play in white [Getty]


Nickname:
The Carthage Eagles

Coach: Nabil Maaloul

Star: Wahbi Khazri

Arriving to Russia as:
Limited by injury, but determined

Expectations: None. To enjoy the experience while perhaps hoping to sting a European giant.


Tunisia is a special country. The country where the Arab Spring first erupted, the largest exporter of Islamic State group militants, and the only country in the recent series of Middle Eastern revolution to end up with something resembling a functioning democracy.

And yes, it is a football-holic nation.

With a great club culture in the domestic league, the Tunisian national team will enjoy great support in Russia. The squad is the world's highest-ranked Arab team at the moment - 21st in the most recent FIFA rankings.

Despite winning the Africa Cup of Nations only once, Tunisia is counted as a solidly African team. But hopes for achieving something in the tournament took a serious hit after both the Eagles' superstars, Youssef Msakni and Taha Khneissi, were injured in their clubs' final matches of the season.

This has left the Carthage Eagles dependent on Wahbi Khazri as the main man - but has also made room for promising talents as Naim Sliti and Said Eddine Khaoui to ply their trade on the world's biggest stage.

Qualification for the final 16 is an unlikely dream, but a near loss to Belgium, a heroic tie with England and a hammering victory against a weak Panama would count as a major success for the Tunisians.

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Farouk Ben Mustapha (Al Shabab, Saudi Arabia), Moez Hassen (Chateauroux, France), Aymen Mathlouthi (Al Baten, Saudi Arabia)

Defenders: Rami Bedoui (Etoile du Sahel), Yohan Benalouane (Leicester City, England), Syam Ben Youssef (Kasimpasa, Turkey), Dylan Bronn (Gent, Belgium), Oussama Haddadi (Dijon, France), Ali Maaloul (Al Ahly, Egypt), Yassine Meriah (CS Sfaxien), Hamdi Nagguez (Zamalek, Egypt)

Midfielders: Anice Badri (Esperance), Mohamed Amine Ben Amor (Al Ahli Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), Ghaylene Chaalali (Esperance), Ahmed Khalil (Club Africain), Saifeddine Khaoui (Troyes, France), Ferjani Sassi (Al Nasr, Saudi Arabia), Ellyes Skhiri (Montpellier, France), Naim Sliti (Dijon, France), Bassem Srarfi (Nice, France)

Forwards: Fakhreddine Ben Youssef (Al Ittifaq, Saudi Arabia), Saber Khalifa (Club Africain), Wahbi Khazri (Rennes, France).

(L to R) Tunisia's defenders Yohan Benalouane, Hamdi Nagguez, Syam Ben Youssef, and Oussama Haddadi train at the El Menzah Olympic stadium in the Tunisian capital [Getty]

 

IRAN

 

 
An ATA Airlines jet carrying Team Melli arrives at Moscow's
Vnukovo International Airport for the World Cup [Getty]

Nickname: Team Melli

Coach: Carlos Queiroz

Star: Alireza Jahanbakhsh

Arriving to Russia: Hoping football will beat the sanctions

Expectations: Fighting for an unlikely spot in the final 16.

Each year, the Iranian football community runs a survey - which team is the favourite in the country? Tehran's giants Persepolis and Esteghlal are always on top - but there is one team that always receives even greater support - Team Melli, the Iranian national team.

It's almost taken for granted. For years, Iran has been the best national team in Asia, and was the second team to guarantee their place in Russia, after Brazil.

With Carlos Quieroz, the former Portugal and Real Madrid coach, in charge, the Iranians have begun a long process of upgrading their football skillset. More than 20 of the Iranian squad played in Europe this season. That's a direct result of Quieroz's great work with the Iranian players over the past seven years, and also an indication of the emerging Iranian footballing talent.

The marquee player in Queiroz's lineup is Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the Dutch Eredivisie top scorer, who has netted 21 goals and 12 assists this season. Jahanbaksh is the first Asian footballer to become a top scorer in any European league. But he is not alone in Russia - Sardar Azmoun of Rubin Kazan, Saman Ghoddos of Ostersunds and Mehdi Taremi from Al-Gharafa are all part of a striking Iranian attacking force here at the World Cup.

Iran's captains - Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi - are two players mired in controversy. The pair were targeted by Iranian politicians and media after playing for Panionios, their Greek former club, against Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv. Many in the bubbles of the elite called for them to be banned - but grassroots Iranian fans supported them with an online campign - #NoBanForOurPlayers was one of Twitter's highest trending topics in 2017.

While the political storm raged, Shojaei ended up winning the league with AEK Athens, while Hajsafi became an indispensable part of Olympiakos. The two experienced and talented figures will lead the way for Team Melli in Russia.

But despite the promising squad and great coach, Iran's preparations have met a serious obstacle - the US sanctions regime against the country. The friendlies against Greece, Kosovo and Italy were all cancelled, and the Iranians have only had a chance to play against Uzbekistan and Lithuania - not a great gauge of the skill levels of their rivals in the powerful Group B (Portugal, Spain, Morocco).

In addition, Nike, the sports brand that represents eight players on the Iranian squad, have reportedly asked their representatives not to wear the company's shoes during the tournament - as part of the US-led sanctions.

When politics gets involved in football, it's always a complete madhouse - the United States couldn't even qualify for the tournament, but Trump's presence is felt here in Russia.

With Morocco in the group, anything is possible. Iran's second game is against Spain in Kazan - home to striker Sardar Azmoun, where he will receive huge support from locals. It is unlikely that the Iranians will grab something from a world class team like Spain, though there is a slim chance of success against Portugal.

Like Morocco, the campaign will not be easy, but it will be hard-fought.

Full squad:

Goalkeepers: Alireza Beyranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo, Portugal).

Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende, Belgium), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad, Qatar), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny, Russia), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos, Greece).

Midfielders: Saeid Ezatollahi (Amkar Perm, Russia), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens, Greece), Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos, Greece).

Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Mahdi Taremi (Al Gharafa, Qatar), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan, Russia), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen, Holland), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds, Sweden), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest, England), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis).

Iranian players train at Lokomotiv Bakovka Training Centre ahead of the World Cup [Getty]



 
[Click image to enlarge]


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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