MENA Sports Wrap: Arab hopefuls battle for 2026 World Cup places

MENA Sports Wrap: Arab hopefuls battle for 2026 World Cup places
Arab teams are competing for a place in the World Cup, with Palestine, Oman, and Saudi Arabia taking a step closer to securing their tickets to the tournament.
5 min read
02 April, 2024
Arab teams have had some successes in the World Cup qualifiers [Getty]

Arab teams are competing for a place in the 2026 World Cup with some thumping wins for Jordan, Iraq, and Syria.

Meanwhile legend Jose Mourinho hinted at a possible move to the Saudi Pro League, and Morocco coach Walid Regragui faces criticism after another poor performance from the Atlas Lions.

World Cup 2026 qualifier stage hots up for MENA teams

MENA teams picked up vital points in the 2026 World Cup qualifiers stage, bringing them closer to competing in North America for the world's most prestigious football tournament.

Iraq, Qatar, the UAE and Uzbekistan all made it to the third round of the AFC qualifiers following wins this week.

Qatar beat Kuwait 2-1 on Tuesday, thanks to two goals from 27-year-old Almoez Ali who is now a top goal scorer in the tournament.

Qatar has won four games in four, seeing them through to the next round despite two games remaining in the group stage.

Iraq also made it through to the next stage with four wins in the group stage following a 5-0 thumping of the Philippines with two goals from Brazil-born Fabio De Lima.

Iran scraped a 1-0 win against Turkmenistan, while Uzbekistan's victory against Hong Kong, China saw Team Melli and the White Wolves both with 10 points, enough to secure a place in the next round.

Syria, Oman, Bahrain, Palestine, and Jordan also won their games this week, giving them a chance of making it to the 2026 World Cup, while a Saudi draw against Tajikistan also sees them in with a shout.

Jose Mourinho Contemplates Move to Saudi Arabia

Former Roma coach Jose Mourinho has sparked rumours of a potential move to Saudi Arabia following his recent engagements with sporting officials from Riyadh side Al-Shabab.

Just a week after parting ways with Roma, Mourinho found himself in discussions with Al-Shabab's sporting director, hinting at a possible shift to the Middle East.

Speculations arose after Mourinho revealed that he had received offers from several Saudi clubs, including Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli, earlier in the season.

Mourinho's recent presence in Saudi Arabia has intensified rumours surrounding his managerial future. He attended prominent sporting events including Anthony Joshua's boxing match and the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, fuelling speculation about a potential move to the kingdom.

In an interview with Fabrizio Romano, Mourinho addressed the speculation, stating: "Cristiano opened the door in terms of believing that it is possible to be there and live there, to enjoy the development of a country that wants to be a different country with football that has a passion but is not developed."

Mourinho emphasised the importance of considering all opportunities, particularly given his experience and the evolving landscape of football.

"If you ask me in the future, experience has told me never say never," he added.

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 Anger at Regragui as Morocco squad disappoints in friendly games

Moroccan football fans are growing increasingly frustrated with the Atlas Lions’ recent performances.

The friendly matches against Angola and Mauritania, the team’s first following a disappointing run at the African Cup of Nations in January, saw Morocco produce less than impressive performances which prompted criticism towards coach Walid Regragui online.

Morocco, captained by Hakim Ziyech, played on Friday against Angola and against Mauritania on Tuesday. The Atlas Lions’ win on Friday was solely thanks to an own goal in the 72nd minute by Angola’s David Carmo.

The match against Mauritania, who impressed during the AFCON competition, saw both teams miss a number of opportunities to find the net. The match ended in a 0-0 draw.

Both matches were played in the southern city of Agadir.

The games also saw the international debut for Spain-born Brahim Diaz, who recently decided to play for the Moroccan national squad instead of La Roja, delighting fans who have sought the talented player to represent the Atlas Lions.

The Real Madrid winger, is eligible to play for both countries as he is born to a Moroccan father and a Spanish mother.

The lacklustre games prompted Moroccan fans online to criticise Regragui, who had previously garnered praise for steering the Atlas Lions to the semi-finals of the 2022 World Cup.

Many believe the coach "didn’t learn anything" following the country's poor run at AFCON, where they were among the favourites to lift the trophy.

Many slammed his tactics and lack of technical vision, meanwhile the squad was criticised for being unable to find goals.

Following the match, Regragui said: "We are not happy, we’re not at the [right] level. There are a lot of new players, [who need] the time to adapt."
"It will take time to find solutions in order to improve our efficiency ahead".

Meanwhile, rivals Algeria tied with South Africa at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in a friendly match on Tuesday, which saw three goals scored by each side.

The Algerian national team beat Bolivia 3-2 - a few days ago - in the team's first friendly match under new coach Vladimir Petkovic, who succeeded Djamel Belmadi after the team's exit from the group stage of the African Cup of Nations, much to the shock of football fans across the continent.