8 magnificent moments from Arab teams at the World Cup

Seven magnificent moments from Arabs teams at the World Cup
7 min read
07 December, 2022

Morocco go the furthest (2022)

At last, the Arab world has a team in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and, the best thing is, it was fully deserved. Morocco eliminated Spain, a genuine European powerhouse, in an emotional evening at Education City, Qatar.

A tight game ended 0-0 after 90 minutes and 0-0 after 30 minutes of extra time. Spain had most of the possession but the Atlas Lions had the better chances. It went to penalties, Morocco’s first at the World Cup and yet they won 3-0.

When Achraf Hakimi fired home the winning penalty, the excitement and sound levels went through the roof. Morocco went through the tie and are the only team in the last eight not from the traditional power centres of Europe and South America.

Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air as Morocco players celebrate after winning the penalty shootout during their last 16 game against Spain [Getty Images]
Morocco's head coach Walid Regragui is thrown in the air as Morocco players celebrate after winning the penalty shootout against Spain [Getty Images]

It is a reminder that football is genuinely a global game. While the Arab world are behind Morocco, so are many neutrals.

Tunisia defeat the world champions (2022)

There haven’t been that many actual wins at the World Cup for Arab teams in total and, before the tournament in Qatar, even fewer victories against the traditional giants of the game.

On the final day of November however, Tunisia defeated France 1-0. It was not just a first-ever win against European opposition for the Carthage Eagles who were the first Arab team to win a World Cup game back in 1978, and it was not just a satisfying victory against their former colonisers either. There was something even better. France are the defending champions and, for many, still the best team on the planet. 

OK, the French may have already booked their place in the latter stages of the competition and rested a number of their star players. Yet as Tunisia scored and defeat looked likely, Les Bleus became increasingly desperate and introduced the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.

Tunisia hung on to defeat the reigning champions and clinch the best result in their history. Sadly, it was not quite enough to see the team go into the second round but they came very close.

Miracle and disgrace of Gijon (1982)

The 1982 World Cup was the best of times, it was the worst of times for Arab football. Before the tournament, no team from the region had ever progressed past the first round. That was expected to continue in Spain. Kuwait were in a tough group with England, France and Czechoslovakia and were always going to struggle to get out of the group and that is what happened as the Blues managed a single point , not a bad effort in their first appearance. 

Algeria’s group may have been slightly easier, on paper,  but they were also expected to go quietly. They did go, but it was far from quiet. 

It started incredibly with Algeria as they played their first ever game at the World Cup and they came up against the mighty West Germany. The overwhelming and understandable expectation was that the Europeans would win and that is certainly the feeling among the German team. 

Thanks to goals from Rabah Madjer and Lakhdar Belloumi however, The Fennecs won 2-1.  “We played a different style of football, a style that no one has ever seen before - it is a mixture of German, Italian and Latin American football", said Algeria captain Ali Fergani. 

That wasn’t quite the end of the story as many know. A day after Algeria beat Chile, the Germans and Austrians knew that a 1-0 win for the former would send the two neighbours through and that is what happened. Anyone watching the game would see immediately that this convenient result was no accident. After this, FIFA ensured that final group games would henceforth kick off simultaneously –no more needs to be said.

Saaed Al-Owairan stuns the world (1994)

Saudi Arabia had to watch the likes of Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates get excited about appearing on the global stage before finally getting their chance in 1994. It was a memorable debut. It started with a creditable 2-1 loss to the talented Netherlands but then came two wins from the next two. 

The first was a widely celebrated victory over Morocco and then followed one of the most famous goals in World Cup history. 

Needing to beat Belgium in the final group game to go through, Saaed Al-Owairan stamped his presence on the global stage. The forward picked up the ball in his own half, dribbled past half of the Red Devils’ defence and then slotted the ball home. It was spectacular, a perfect goal that could only be enhanced by the fact it sent the team into the knock-out stages.

Morocco first to make it through (1986)

The first time Morocco made it to the World Cup was in Mexico 1970 and 16 years later, the tournament returned to the same country and so did the Atlas Lions and this time they meant business. 

An all-European group started with goalless draws against Poland and England and ended with a 3-1 win over Portugal. It put the North Africans on top of their group though they were unfortunate to be drawn with West Germany in the second round. They were also unfortunate to lose 1-0 with the goal coming with just three minutes remaining. Just getting to the knock-out stages was a real achievement however and it really seemed as if Arab teams had arrived.

Saudi Arabia ignites Qatar World Cup (2022)

The 2022 tournament started fairly slowly and nothing special was expected at half-time on day three as Argentina led 1-0 against Saudi Arabia. The two-time champions had three goals disallowed too. The second half looked like a formality ending in a comfortable win for the South Americans but it was anything but. 

Two goals in the space of five minutes soon after the break, a fine strike from Saleh Al-Shehri and a spectacular one from Salem Al-Dawsari, turned everything around. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia were ahead, Argentina shell-shocked and, in the end, well beaten. It was one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, fully deserved and gave the World Cup the kickstart that every tournament needs.

Egypt hold their own against the big boys (1990)

The Pharaohs may have been the first to appear back in 1934 and just had one game, a defeat against Hungary, before heading home. Egypt had then to wait 56 years for their second match and the group they found themselves in was a tough one. 

They drew 1-1 with the Netherlands, then the champions of Europe. That still remains one of the best results for any Arab team at the World Cup. Then came another draw against Ireland and it was only due to a 1-0 defeat against England that Egypt failed to get out of the group. In the end, then, disappointment but overall, it was a fine performance from Egypt.

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Morocco give world number two a lesson (2022)

Belgium were ranked second in the world when they met Morocco in November. The Red Devils are full of big-name players and while there was a sense that this ‘golden generation’ was starting to lose their lustre, this was a talented team and a very tough opponent. 

Yet Morocco won 2-0 and gave Belgium the runaround. The two goals in the second half had the stadium, packed full of Moroccan fans, bouncing in excitement. It is one thing to beat one of the best teams in world football but it is something else entirely to outplay them.

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