The international players swapping Europe for Mena to chase their World Cup dreams

Ousou, Dahoud and Diaz among stars to switch allegiance after Fifa's move to expand global finals

Aiham Ousou, playing here for parent club Slavia Prague, has decided to switch his international allegiances from Sweden to Syria. Reuters
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For his first match in Spain’s La Liga, Aiham Ousou had been set a daunting challenge. His new team, Cadiz, were in the relegation zone. He’d had few training sessions to build defensive partnerships with teammates. And here he was, facing Atletico Madrid, up against the formidable aerial threat of Alvaro Morata, the blistering pace of Memphis Depay. Welcome to club football’s elite.

Ousou is 24 and on his Cadiz debut, 12 days ago, he also made history, the first Syrian international to play in Spain’s top division. He left an excellent impression, a centre-back of astute positioning, authoritative interceptions, confident in his long passing.

Tough, too. Midway through the first half, Morata collided with Ousou and the Spaniard fell to the ground clutching his face. It was a stunt, a test by a canny, much-travelled, much-medalled striker designed to shake up the newcomer. The referee ignored Morata’s complaints, Ousou paid no attention.

Cadiz won 2-0, their head coach Mauricio Pellegrino sharing the credit for a rare clean sheet with Ousou. “He hadn’t so much as played a friendly for us,” said Pellegrino. “But I know he can bring a lot to the sort of team we are.”

He identifies in Ousou a warrior, a man unruffled by the streetwise smarts of the likes of Morata. Ousou has become very worldly, very fast. Cadiz, who signed him on loan from Czech club Slavia Prague in January, are the fourth team he’s represented this season, a zig-zag adventure taking in Europa League football for Slavia, for Sweden’s Hacken, where he was on loan from September, and – the highlight – an Asian Cup where Syria made history by reaching the knockout stage and falling short of the quarter-finals only in a penalty shoot-out against Iran.

Syria, in turn, are the second national side Ousou has played for. He was born in Sweden and, having played for Sweden's age-group teams and for the senior side in 2022, he last year switched allegiance to the country of his heritage, as dual-national players are allowed to if, under Fifa rules, they have played only a small number of games for one country before committing to another.

Ousou’s formalities were completed just before the Asian Cup in Qatar, where he played every minute while Syria were still involved. He travels to Myanmar for Thursday’s World Cup qualifier already regarded as a senior figure and a pathfinder, one of a band of Syrians who were born or grew up elsewhere with options of international careers with the country of their parents or grandparents. Three native Argentinians, sons of families who emigrated to South America generations ago, were among Syria’s mould-breakers at the Asian Cup.

Hector Cuper, the Argentine who coaches Syria, helped persuade some of them to explore their eligibility. He now nourishes the dream of a World Cup appearance. Cuper cites Syria’s breakthrough success at the Asian Cup, an unprecedented second-phase that stirred so much emotion that Cuper’s interpreter broke down in tears on live television in the post-match interviews after the last group game. The moment went viral across social media.

On England's south coast, Mahmoud Dahoud shared that joy. A part of him wished he was in Qatar. “I learnt how important it is to bring pleasure to the people of Syria,” Dahoud said last week, announcing his availability for the country of his birth, the Syria he left with his parents as an infant to settle in Germany.

Dahoud grew up to have an outstanding career as a midfielder, winning the European Under-17 Championship with Germany and two senior caps for his adopted nation. He played 141 times for Borussia Dortmund before joining Brighton & Hove Albion last August.

During the Asian Cup, with the Brighton move having proved less happy than anticipated, he was negotiating a loan transfer to Stuttgart and at the same time envisaging a path to international fulfillment. “I’ve been drawn to the idea of playing for Syria,” Dahoud told Sky Germany. “It’s something I am really looking forward to and comes from the heart.”

At 28 years old, Dahoud can realistically target playing in the 2027 Asian Cup, and perhaps a World Cup. He is expected to debut for Syria in next week’s home qualifier against Myanmar, to be played, for security reasons, in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. It’s a potentially crucial tie. In their two games against Myanmar, Syria need only better whatever results North Korea achieve against group leaders Japan to put themselves on course for the next stage of AFC qualifying.

On the horizon is a World Cup finals expanded to 48 countries, with a higher proportion than ever of finalists from Asia and Africa. In all, nine teams from the Asian Confederation could be in North America in two summers time, and 10 from Africa.

It is not far-fetched to imagine 10 or 12 Mena countries making it, provided some of the traditional powerhouses – Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia – correct their poor showings at this year’s Asian Cup and Africa Cup of Nations respectively, and some of the impressive upstarts from those events continue their upward momentum.

Former minnows are now ambitious middleweights: Jordan reached the Asian Cup final; Mauritania were within an 87th-minute Cape Verde goal of clawing their way into the quarter-finals at Afcon.

Having come so close to being in the top eight in Qatar, Syria can rightly ask: ‘Why shouldn’t we be among Asia’s World Cup nine?’

The lure for elite players is clear. Where countries with no great tournament history used to resign themselves to being also-rans in qualification, and nations affected by conflict would find eligible players from faraway clubs reluctant to travel to games, there is a fresh zeal for national duty.

“It’s a good thing for countries like ours to have a bigger chance,” says the head coach of Libya, Micho Sredojevic. Libya, who alone among North African countries have never qualified for a World Cup, will resume their qualifying campaign having already taken points from Cameroon.

Elsewhere in Africa’s qualifying groups, Sudan have already beaten DR Congo, and sit in second place – which offers a potential route to World Cup 2026 play-offs – and are drawing on players from the Sudanese diaspora to strengthen their squad.

There’s a new superstar of international football for the Mena region, too, showing the way. Real Madrid’s Brahim Diaz arrived in Rabat on Monday to a warm reception, a long tussle over his international career having finally been resolved in Morocco’s favour.

Diaz, whose father’s family are Moroccan, was born in Malaga, Spain, and while accumulating his precocious haul of league titles, with Manchester City, AC Milan and Madrid, was selected by Spain from under-17 level upwards, winning a senior Spanish Cup in a 2021 friendly.

His fine form for Madrid had him earmarked for a Spain recall – until last week, when he committed to Morocco, for whom he should debut on Saturday against Angola. The advice of Achraf Hakimi, the Madrid-born Morocco star, and Walid Regragui, the Morocco head coach, had been persuasive.

So is the lure of the World Cup. Diaz watched Morocco defeat Spain in the last-16 stage at the 2022 tournament on their way to a historic semi-final. “I identified with what they achieved,” he told Spanish broadcasters. “I had a choice between two countries I love. The affection and the project Morocco showed me means there is no looking back.”

Diaz, at only 24, can see an exciting road map ahead. In 15 months time, Morocco will stage the African Cup of Nations; the following summer, there’s the supersized World Cup, and when Diaz is only 30, a World Cup co-hosted by Morocco. When the 2034 World Cup goes to Saudi Arabia, he’ll still be of an age to be pulling the strings in attacking midfield.

“We all dream, as children, of playing in World Cups,” explained Diaz. “I’m simply a kid with dreams, who makes his decisions from the heart.”

Updated: March 20, 2024, 3:08 AM