100 day countdown till the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar: An Arab overview
About the only thing that can be said for certain ahead of the World Cup is that there will be four Arab nations participating, matching the record representation from the 2018 tournament.
As hosts of the 32-team tournament, Qatar were always guaranteed their first appearance and they were then joined by Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia.
All of the quartet have a chance of surviving the group stage though, on the other hand, there would be no surprise if they all fell at this first hurdle.
"Who could forget the 1982 World Cup when Algeria celebrated defeating the mighty West Germany?"
A quick history
Who could forget the 1982 World Cup when Algeria celebrated defeating the mighty West Germany?
The North Africans were nonetheless prevented from progressing to the latter stages as the Germans and the Austrians cooked up a result in the final group game that sent both of them through, at the expense of the North Africans.
It remains one of the most infamous episodes in the tournament’s history.
Four years later Morocco won a group containing England, Portugal and Poland but lost 1-0 to West Germany in the second round.
In 1994 Saudi Arabia made their debut in the same group as Morocco and beat the Africans then the Belgians to make it to the last 16, thanks to another famous World Cup moment, a spectacular goal from Saeed Al-Owairan.
Sweden ended that run in the knockout stages. Algeria did get into the second round back in 2014 and gave eventual champions Germany a real scare but ended up going home.
Tunisia has never got past the group stage in five previous attempts while Qatar is looking forward to a first appearance that will come against Ecuador on November 20, the opening day of the 2022 World Cup.
The road to the World Cup
Tunisia made it past Mali thanks to a tight defence and a first-leg own goal in Bamako.
That 1-0 win meant that the 0-0 draw in Tunisia was enough.
The Carthage Eagles may not be the most exciting team to watch but are certainly hard to beat. They will be joined in Qatar by Morocco who breezed past the Democratic Republic of Congo 5-2 on aggregate.
Saudi Arabia had their place at a sixth World Cup sewn up with two games to go. The Green Falcons were delighted to top Group B ahead of Japan and Australia and were in control from the opening games.
Under coach Herve Renard, who took Morocco to the 2018 tournament, the Saudis have made significant improvements.
Here is a brief overview of the four teams and their character:
Qatar has probably the best hope of surviving the group stage. As hosts they have not just the advantage of home support but will have the best preparation of any of the 32 teams – the Asian champions have been getting ready for this since December 2010 when they were awarded hosting rights.
They have played in Copa America, CONCACAF’s Gold Cup and even the European World Cup qualification.
Staging the competition means that they have been placed in the top rank of seeds handing them, on paper, an easier group than the others.
One of Qatar’s weaknesses is that they have never appeared at the World Cup before but group rivals Ecuador and Senegal are not exactly veterans either with only three and two appearances respectively.
That first clash against Ecuador is probably a must-win and if the team can rise above the pressure and noise of an opening World Cup clash, then three points are certainly possible and will give Qatar some leeway when they meet African champions Senegal in the second game.
Their group finishes with a clash against the resurgent Netherlands. Win the first then just one point from the next two games may be enough to progress.
Only once, South Africa in 2010, has a host not progressed past the first round. Qatar will be desperate not to be the second and that fear may make the difference.
Saudi Arabia is in Group C and faces a tough task.
The team may have improved under French coach Herve Renard and are more cohesive, disciplined and tactically flexible but face Argentina in the opening game.
It is difficult to imagine the Green Falcons getting a result against the likes of Lionel Messi and company.
June’s friendly defeats against weaker South American opposition in Colombia and Venezuela show that there is a long way to go before taking on the two-time champions who are in the running to win once again.
"All of the quartet have a chance of surviving the group stage though, on the other hand, there would be no surprise if they all fell at this first hurdle"
Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s squad is completely domestic-based which means that there will be ample opportunity for training camps and rest, unlike the bigger teams who have players all over Europe and will arrive at the World Cup just days before it all starts.
The second game against Poland is perhaps the best chance of a win but keeping out Robert Lewandowski, one of the best strikers in the world, will test the Saudi defence, which tends to struggle against teams with aerial ability, to the limit.
Mexico in the final game will also be far from easy. There is hope, however. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Under-23 Saudi team (who became champions of Asia in June) was competitive against Germany, Brazil and Mexico and they may well be under-estimated by the others.
Tunisia is in Group D and it is not a nice one as it contains world champions France.
If that wasn’t bad enough then Denmark, who reached the semi-finals of the European championships last summer, is also there.
It is hard to see Tunisia, perhaps the weakest of the African continent, finishing above these two. Australia completes the group and while the Socceroos offer the best chance of points, they will see Tunisia in the same way.
Yet the Carthage Lions looked good last month in picking up a very impressive 3-0 win over Japan, also World Cup-bound, in Osaka. It was one of the team’s best results for a long time. It followed a 2-0 victory over Chile.
Strong defending and incisive counter-attacking were on display. More of that in Qatar and anything could happen. France is the last opponent and could already be through to the next round by the time they play Tunisia.
And then there is Morocco, who has much more attacking talent than their fellow North Africans.
The group is an intriguing one. It contains Belgium, a team that was until recently ranked number one in the world though there is a feeling that the so-called ‘golden generation' has passed its peak.
Croatia reached the final in 2018 but is also not the force they were and then there is Canada, the team preparing for a first World Cup since 1986 but one that finished above the United States and Mexico in qualification.
A question marks remain over coach Vahid Halilhodzic, especially after a 3-0 loss to the United States in June which, according to reports, almost cost him his job (it would be the third time to be fired just before a World Cup as he was dismissed by Ivory Coast in 2010 and Japan in 2018).
The Bosnian was already under fire for falling out with star player Hakim Ziyech who plays for European champions Chelsea and is currently not playing for the national team after the two fell out last year.
Halilhodzic did however build bridges with Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui recently so there is still time for Ziyech to return.
Not many teams can afford to be without such talent and with a tough group ahead, Morocco certainly needs all hands on deck.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden