Why Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia have struggled at the 2018 World Cup
VOLGOGRAD -- Russia 2018 has not been a great World Cup for the Arab world with all four representatives -- Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia -- losing their first two games and crashing out with a game to spare.
While there was some pride restored on Monday, the collective campaign is a tale of bad luck, bad finishing and a lack of experience at the highest level.
In their final Group B game, Morocco (by some distance the best performer of the quartet) gave Spain a scare by going ahead twice in a 2-2 draw to claim their first point, while the first Arab win came earlier on the same day in the derby between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia came back from a goal down to win 2-1 in the last minute after Mohamed Salah had put Egypt ahead, but the Liverpool forward's quality is a rare sight in one of the Arab countries at the World Cup.
"There is still a gap between the Arab nations and the top countries in the world," Nelo Vingada, former coach of the Saudi Arabia national team, as well as top clubs in Morocco and Egypt, told ESPN FC. "This is especially true when we talk about attackers as you need strikers to compete at the highest level."
Saudi Arabia certainly showed that they are not blessed with attacking talent, starting without either of their two recognised strikers for their final game -- though that tactic worked out on the end. Meanwhile, had Morocco had a top-class forward then surely they wouldn't have lost their first two games 1-0 as they missed a number of good chances.
Earlier this week, Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul insisted it will take time for Arab nations to challenge.
"We have common problems," he said. "I don't think we have high quality performance, we need to change our lifestyle because it is not in line with high-level football, we need to change the way we train. We need two more generations."
But is not just about the lack of offensive talent on show. At this World Cup, the Arab sides have been unable to keep things tight at the back, with Egypt especially disappointing and Saudi Arabia setting the tone in a 5-0 loss to Russia in the opening game.
Egypt boss Hector Cuper was asked by journalists ahead of the team's second game whether he would consider a more attacking strategy and showed little appetite to deviate from the norm. "We qualified by playing this way so it will be hard to change it," he said. "For three years and a few months we've decided on a certain path. We've achieved a lot by following that path, so with very little time before the World Cup it would be risky to change things substantially in our style."
Bad luck also played a part in poor results. Morocco coach Herve Renard was furious about how a foul by Portugal defender Pepe went unpunished as the European champions scored the only goal in their clash.
"For us it is unjust we are already out before these third matches. It is highly unfair," he said. "There was a huge foul committed by Pepe on the first post, it was not seen. Why wasn't it seen?"
Other events seemed to have conspired against the Arab sides too. Saudi fans have questioned whether their campaign may have been different had they not had the pressure of playing in the opening game -- though coach Juan Antonio Pizzi dismissed this after the win over Egypt. The Pharaohs were without Salah, their talisman, not just for the first game but as Cuper pointed out repeatedly, the three-week pre-tournament training camp when the team wanted to fine tune. Not only that, the Russia defeat was kicked off by an unfortunate own goal.
It would have, perhaps, been easier to handle if the teams had experience to fall back on. None of the four have recent appearances at the World Cup. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia last appeared in 2006, for Morocco the wait has been 20 years, with Egypt returning for the first time since 1990.
"We should have had a draw in the opening game but were caught in the last minute," Renard said after the Spain draw. "If we get a point there then things could have been very different. We perhaps lacked experience, but we have learnt how to play at a higher level."
That may not seem like much now but Morocco and the others can use the experience to return stronger. The 2018 World Cup may be one to forget but it could lay the foundations for a better showing at Qatar 2022 when the tournament comes to the Arab world for the first time ever.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.