DUBAI: It may be painful but let’s look back to the first round of games for Arab countries at the 2018 World Cup.
Saudi Arabia were thrashed 5-0 by hosts Russia in the tournament’s opening game in Moscow. Then came Tunisia and Morocco, and it is hard to say whether their first defeats were more heartbreaking or less.
The former were holding England to a 1-1 draw but then lost to an injury time Harry Kane goal and the latter were undone in the 95th minute by an own goal against Iran. None recovered and all were out of the tournament after just two group games.
Four years on, however, and things are very different.
Whatever happens in the second round of games in the coming days, three of the four Arab nations are going to be in with a chance of progressing to the last 16.
After the disappointment of Qatar’s 2-0 defeat at the hands of Ecuador in the tournament opener on Sunday, teams representing the region have shone.
Qatar’s Ismaeel Mohammed spoke of the inspiration that the Asian champions have taken from the exploits of their regional rivals.
“The performance until now, especially of Arab teams, is making us maybe a bit jealous and is motivating us to do as well as they have,” he said on Thursday.
Qatar are not the only team jealous of Saudi Arabia, and desperately wishing to experience something similar. The Green Falcons have been hogging the international spotlight since that stunning 2-1 comeback win over Argentina.
Plenty has already been said about the game itself but it is really something when the football world is talking about Salem Al-Dawsari rather than Lionel Messi.
It was a tactical masterclass from coach Herve Renard but one that could not have worked without the effort, intelligence and dedication from his players. The brave way they played was hailed even in Argentina.
Debates have raged on where this ranks on the scale of World Cup upsets. It is certainly right up there, and easily the biggest since Senegal, playing their first ever game at the World Cup, defeated holders France in the opening game of the 2002 tournament. It may even rival Cameroon beating Argentina, then the holders, in the first game of the 1990 cup in Italy.
In terms of Arab results, it is fair to say that the only competition Saudi Arabia have is Algeria’s 2-1 win over the mighty West Germany in 1982.
The headlines in the German media that year have been mirrored somewhat in the Argentina press now — derision for their team and praise for the victors.
It is certainly the biggest Saudi result in a World Cup tournament. The 1994 team got to the knockout stages and defeated Morocco and Belgium, but Argentina is on a different level.
Later on, Tuesday, Tunisia took on Denmark, regarded by some as dark horses in Qatar, a team that reached the semifinals of the 2020 European Championships where they were narrowly defeated by England.
The game ended 0-0 but it was an entertaining affair and the point that the Carthage Eagles took was fully deserved and they could have had all three had it not been for the reactions of Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
For the first hour of the game, they were on top with their energy and aggression causing plenty of problems.
And then came Morocco and another goalless draw, once again against a talented European opponent. The stalemate with 2018 finalist Croatia was a solid start for the Atlas Lions and another deserved point. Both teams looked well matched and fought each other to a standstill.
Those results did not grab the same headlines as Saudi Arabia’s, but they are significant. At the very least, these three Arab teams will avoid the fate of 2018 when they went into the final games of the group knowing that they were already eliminated. They will be competitive until the end, but ambitions are obviously greater now.
The conquerors of Argentina now turn their attention to Poland, who drew 0-0 with Mexico in a tepid game on Saturday and could conceivably book a place in the second round with a match to spare. That really would be a massive achievement but after Tuesday, it would not be a massive shock.
Tunisia take on Australia. Both teams regard the other as their best chance for three points in Group D. The Socceroos were beaten 4-1 by France with the defending champions unsurprisingly a cut above.
On early impressions, Tunisia are favorites. Victory would put Jalel Kadri’s men in with a great chance of the next stage, especially if the French defeat Denmark.
Morocco take on Belgium on Sunday. The Red Devils beat Canada 1-0 but were far from impressive. Belgium struggled with the hard-running of the Canadians and Walid Regragui’s men will fancy their chances. Saudi Arabia’s victory against Argentina stands as an example of what can be done.
Qatar know that losing to Senegal on Friday puts them in danger of suffering the fate of all three Arab teams from 2018. For the region as a whole however, this tournament is already looking very different. Saudi Arabia have shown the way and are leading a resurgent Arab football world.