Egyptian pioneers to Algerian powerhouses: Top Arab teams at the World Cup

Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco and Qatar will be on show at 2022 tournament

Algeria's Abdelmoumene Djabou scores against Germany during the 2014 World Cup at Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Getty
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The 2022 World Cup will feature four Arab teams at a global finals for the second successive tournament – equalling the record set in Russia last time out.

Before Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco blaze their own trail in Doha in November, we look back at some of the most notable World Cup contributions by Arab teams through the years.

The Egyptian national team at the second World Cup in Italy in 1934. AFP

Egypt the Arab pioneers (1934)

The second staging of the World Cup included its first Arab participant. Egypt qualified for Italy by defeating Mandatory Palestine, a side that comprised British and Jewish players. The North Africans ran out 11-2 winners across two legs, which took place in Cairo and Tel Aviv.

At the World Cup in Italy - the group stage used in the first finals was discarded in favour of a straight knockout tournament - Egypt were drawn against Hungary, then one of the game’s foremost teams, and went on to lose 4-2 in Naples. Abdulrahman Fawzi did give Egypt something to be proud of, though: he scored twice just after the half hour to draw the game level at 2-2, at the same time etching his name in Arab football history.

That said, Egypt - and others - felt they were the victim of some biased refereeing. The country would not qualify for another World Cup for 56 years.

Tunisia's Nehjib Ghommidh scores a second goal for his team during the World Cup match against Mexico in Rosario, Argentina on June 2, 1978.  AP

Tunisia’s Rosario rally seals historic win (1978)

A first World Cup appearance brought about one of the great global-finals results for an Arab side. Less than 20 years following their first match as a Fifa-recognised team, Tunisia marked their arrival on the grand stage with a 3-1 victory against Mexico in Argentina.

Trailing 1-0 at half-time to the Concacaf Gold Cup champions, Abdelmajid Chetali’s team rebounded in Rosario through goals from Ali Kaabi, Nejib Ghommidh and Mokhtar Dhouieb. It represented a first win by an Arab team at a World Cup. Tunisia would then hold reigning champions West Germany to a goalless draw, before a 1-0 defeat to Poland meant they missed out on the next round by a solitary point.

Nevertheless, Tunisia had paved the way for North African entrants; Algeria and Morocco soon followed their lofty lead at the next couple of tournaments.

Sheikh Fahd al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the brother of Emir of Kuwait, is pictured during the World Cup football match between France and Kuwait on June 21, 1982, in Valladolid. AFP

Kuwait and the phantom whistle (1982)

Kuwait’s only World Cup appearance is remembered not for a jaw-dropping result, or a memorable goal. But, rather bizarrely, a whistle that never was. Having opened their group in Spain with a 1-1 draw against Czechoslovakia, the Gulf side were already toiling against France when midfielder Alain Giresse put his team 4-1 up as the opposition defence offered no resistance.

However, a furious Kuwait claimed they had heard a whistle – it transpired that it may have come from the stands – and chaos ensued. Enter Sheikh Fahad Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah. Then president of the Kuwaiti Football Association, Al Sabah came down from his seat and on to the pitch to join the protests, pulling his players from the field.

Incredibly, referee Miroslav Stupar disallowed the goal. France did, though, eventually win 4-1, while Al Sabah was fined by Fifa and Stupar later banned from refereeing.

Algeria's Lakhdar Belloumi celebrates after victory over West Germany at Estadio El Molinon on June 16, 1982. Action Images

Algeria shock the world (1982)

Another debutant, another remarkable result. This time, Algeria signalled their arrival at the World Cup with one of the great performances by an Arab side, defeating West Germany, the reigning European champions, 2-1 in their Group 2 opener in Gijon.

The global game was introduced to Rabah Madjer, who set Algeria on their way, only for the Germans to equalise through Karl-Heinze Rummenigge. Their joy was short-lived, though: Lakhdar Belloumi struck a minute later to seal a famous victory and one of the World Cup’s greatest shocks.

However, Algeria would lose to Austria and win against Costa Rica, meaning, if they were to progress, they needed Germany to not defeat Austria by one or two goals the following day. The Germans went 1-0 up after 10 minutes, then the game descended into a mutually beneficial kickabout.

Algeria were out, their appeal to Fifa rejected, and the game became known as the “Disgrace of Gijon”. The episode did prompt one crucial change to the rules: the final matches in any competitive tournament had to kick off simultaneously.

Belgian goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff dives to the feet of Iraqi forward Ahmed Radhi on June 8, 1986 in Toluca. AFP

Dominant regionally, Iraq debut on big stage (1986)

Iraq’s golden era through the mid-1980s would culminate in the country’s first and, to this date, only foray at a World Cup. Already gold medal winners at the 1982 Asian Games, and winners of both the 1984 Arabian Gulf Cup and the 1985 Arab Nations Cup, the Gulf side landed in Mexico eager to stamp their authority on football’s marquee event.

In getting there, Iraq were in danger of letting slip their superiority in the play-off with the UAE, but Karim Saddam’s chip five minutes from time in Abu Dhabi sent the visitors through to the next stage on away goals, where they would defeat Syria for a place in Mexico.

At the tournament, Iraq lost all three group games, including to the hosts and a majestic Belgium side, but could still celebrate Ahmed Radhi’s historic goal against the former. The team, though, returned home to trouble within the country in the ongoing war with Iran, and the increasing influence of Uday Hussein – son of Saddam – on the football scene.

England captain Bryan Robson is fouled by Moroccan Mostafa El Biaz during the World Cup first round match  in Monterrey on June 6, 1986. AFP

Morocco upset applecart to reach knockouts (1986)

Pitted in Group F alongside England, Poland and Portugal, few expected much, if anything, from Morocco in their second World Cup showing. However, they exceed all expectation in Mexico, opening with gutsy 0-0 draws against Poland and England, before sealing a win for the ages in the final fixture against Portugal.

Abdelrazzak Khairi scored twice midway through the first half in Zapopan, with Abdelkarim “Krimau” Merry adding another just after the hour. Portugal, semi-finalists at the European Championships two years previously, reduced the deficit 10 minutes from time, but the result was secure: the 3-1 win sent Morocco top of the group, and into the record books as the first Arab team to make the knockout stages of a World Cup.

They would ultimately be outdone by Lothar Matthaus’ late, late effort for West Germany in the Round of 16. Still, they proved Arab football should be taken seriously.

UAE forward Adnan al-Talyani on the ball during the World Cup Group D match against Yugoslavia at the Renato Dall'Ara stadium in Bologna, Italy on June 19, 1990. AFP

All-Emirati side finally realise dream (1990)

After coming agonisingly close to a World Cup debut four years previously, the UAE made it, finally, to football’s showpiece. A 1-1 draw with South Korea in Singapore in 1989 was enough to clinch a place at Italia ’90, the UAE then strutting out at a global finals less than two decades after the country’s formation.

Placed in a fiendishly difficult Group D, the national team performed admirably in the opening 2-0 defeat to a star-studded Colombia, before Khalid Ismail’s historic goal at San Siro in the 5-1 loss to West Germany – the eventual champions – and Ali Thani’s strike in the 4-1 reverse to a gifted Yugoslavia showcased the unheralded team’s ability.

The UAE may have exited at the group stage, but a squad comprising exclusively domestically based Emiratis departed Italy with reputation enhanced. It remains the country’s only World Cup appearance.

Belgian defender Philippe Albert tries to block Saudi Arabia forward Saeed Owairan as he runs past defender Rudi Smidts during the World Cup first round on June 29, 1994 in Washington. AFP

Saeed Al Owairan’s Saudi slalom (1994)

Making their World Cup bow, Saudi more than made a statement Stateside. The Gulf side began their campaign in the United States with a far-from-embarrassing 2-1 defeat to Holland, then built upon that with a 2-1 win against Morocco and a 1-0 victory against a much-fancied Belgium.

The goal, which eventually sent Saudi to the next phase as the second-placed side in Group F, will be forever remembered. Step forward Saeed Al Owairan. Collecting the ball in his own half five minutes in at Washington’s RFK Stadium, the Saudi No 10 sped past a slew of Belgian opponents before sliding the ball under goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme from close range.

It was a sensational run, comfortably sitting among the best goals scored at a World Cup. In the next round, Saudi lost 3-1 to Sweden, the eventual semi-finalists. Despite making four global finals since, Washington 1994 sits arguably still as their finest footballing moment.

Algeria's Abdelmoumene Djabou scores against Germany in extra time at Estadio Beira-Rio on June 30, 2014 in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  Getty

Algeria drive eventual champs close to knockout (2014)

By now North African powerhouses, Algeria delivered in Brazil, turning in one of the standout World Cup runs by an Arab side. The talent within the squad was obvious; the 23-man list included Madjid Bougherra, Yacine Brahimi and Riyad Mahrez.

However, it did not begin too well for Algeria who, despite playing well in the Group H opener against Belgium, lost their lead and then the game, 2-1. A 4-2 victory against South Korea in Porto Alegre renewed hope, before a 1-1 draw with Russia sent them through to the knockouts for the first time.

The last-16 clash with Germany was gripping, with Andre Schurrie giving the Europeans the lead in extra-time and Mesut Ozil doubling the advantage in the 119th minute. There was still time, though, for Abdelmoumene Djabou to strike and set up a frantic finish.

Algeria, better throughout the additional 30 minutes, were out, although with heads held high. Two weeks later, Germany lifted the trophy for a fourth time.

Updated: November 18, 2022, 5:22 AM
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