Backyard kickabout: Arab teams embrace home advantage ahead of World Cup showdown

Supporters kiss a replica of the World Cup trophy ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022
6 min read
17 November, 2022

The World Cup is just days away and among the talk about who will win, who will miss out through injury and the effects of a first mid-winter (in the northern hemisphere, at least) tournament, a few topics have been missed.

One of those is how the biggest sporting event on the planet coming to the Arab world for the first time may help the teams of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia.

Until now that quartet –Qatar have never made it at all – has a combined total of 15 appearances at the competition. Only on two occasions have they made it past the group stage.

"Maybe there will be a feeling of brotherhood among Arab nations that will help. Supporters from the United Arab Emirates, who just missed out on the World Cup after losing a play-off to Australia, are the sixth biggest purchaser of tickets"

Morocco did it in 1986 and then, eight years later, Saudi Arabia repeated the feat. That’s it –with the other 13 times ending in an early knockout. It’s not a great record but in the past, they have had to compete far away in Europe and South America. This time, the action is coming to their own backyard.

“This is an advantage for these teams that most others do not have,” Sven Vandenbroeck, who has coached clubs in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, told The New Arab.

“They are playing on familiar ground and the climate and conditions will be very familiar to them. It is the opponents who have to adapt to the new environment.”

Supporters from Tunisia pose for a picture at Souq Waqif ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 [Getty Images]
Supporters from Tunisia pose for a picture at Souq Waqif ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 [Getty Images]

It remains to be seen how big an issue this is but it can’t do any harm for the Arab teams who will have little need for travel, acclimatisation or rest. That’s in contrast with many of their rivals.

The big European leagues are finishing just a week before the tournament starts instead of the usual month, meaning that many of the traditional powers will be arriving in Doha just three or four days before their first games with no time to rest or adapt. In short, the big boys have not had much time yet to even think about the World Cup.

Extended Training

Such preparation is not just far from ideal, it is non-existent. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are different.

Both squads are made up completely of domestic players (Morocco and Tunisia have a mixture of European-based stars and those in action at home in leagues that have now stopped) and the conventional football wisdom suggests that this is a negative as the players lack international exposure and regular action at the highest levels but this time the preparation period could make a difference.  

Saudi Arabia’s league, probably the best in the Arab world, stopped in mid-October and then 32 players immediately headed to Abu Dhabi for a training camp and five warm-up games against teams from Europe and Central America before they return to Riyadh and a final clash against 2018 runners-up Croatia.

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Opening game opponents Argentina are going to get together and arrive in the region just four or five days before. Saudi Arabia has been together for weeks with coach Herve Renard trying different line-ups, tightening the defence and controlling the players’ fitness levels. If there is a chance against the South American giants, and it is always going to be a slim one, it is in this planning period. 

“We are in a difficult group,” said Renard when asked about being placed with the two-time champions as well as Poland and Mexico. “We have great confidence in ourselves as we have worked hard to prepare for the World Cup. I have been able to try different formations for the Saudi national team and look at different players. They have been performing very well and we are looking forward to showing what we can do, starting against Argentina.”

Qatar, unsurprisingly, has also been active. Preparations for the host nation could be said to have started way back in 2010. Since then there have been appearances in tournaments around the world such as South America’s Copa America and then participation in North and Central America’s Gold Cup and even a stint in a European qualification group for the World Cup. 

The Qatar Stars League paused last month too but that didn’t matter so much for the national team coach Felix Sanchez as he has had his players in a training camp since June. 

"We have had a good preparation program, taking into account that we are Qatar, a small country with little experience, with players who have always played in Qatar, in a minor league,” coach Felix Sanchez told Spanish media earlier this month. “Being able to give them this international experience by playing tournaments like the Gold Cup or Copa America, as well as friendlies, has prepared us, although it will never be the same scenario or the same situation. We try to maintain normality. We already know that there is that pressure, and we don't have to add to it.”

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Home Support

As well as familiarity breeding contentment, there will be support. For the first time, there will be thousands of fans in the stands for all the Arab teams. The host nation is obviously the biggest buyer of tickets but in third place is Saudi Arabia. This has never happened before.

The Green Falcons are going to be supported by a large contingent of their countrymen wherever they play, a huge contrast from 2018 in Russia when there were few green shirts to be seen. There will be healthy support too for Morocco and Tunisia with fans able to travel over just for a day or two.

Maybe there will be a feeling of brotherhood among Arab nations that will help. Supporters from the United Arab Emirates, who just missed out on the World Cup after losing a play-off to Australia, are the sixth biggest purchaser of tickets.

There are also a large number of Egyptians, whose team lost a penalty shootout in Senegal, in Qatar. It remains to be seen if they will get behind their neighbours but it would be a welcome example of Arab solidarity if they did as well as producing even more noise from the stands..

They may have plenty to cheer about if the timing and location of the 2022 World Cup make the difference for the four Arab hopefuls.

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