By Tarek El-Tablawy and Ahmed Feteha
In a region more used to strife and daily struggle, the historic qualification of four Arab nations for next year’s soccer World Cup finals in Russia is providing some cheer — for fans as well as their troubled leaders.
Morocco and Tunisia on Saturday joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia in securing spots for the sport’s top competition. That eclipsed the Arab world’s previous best showing, when three teams took part in the 1998 competition in France. The celebrations reached from the street to high political office.
Following Morocco’s 2-0 win over Ivory Coast, the state-run news agency published photographs of women hoisting the nation’s flag in the main city of disputed Western Sahara, where separatists have been seeking independence for decades. After Egypt qualified last month, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi met with the team, amid local media reports that each player was awarded 1.5 million pounds ($85,000).
“Arab countries always rely on soccer to project a good image of themselves to their youth,” said Salah Assad, an Algerian who was part of the national team that defeated Germany in the 1982 World Cup. “Unfortunately, these opportunities have been rare.”
It’s easy to see why the governments might want to distract their people. Egyptians are fuming over soaring prices and curtailed freedoms, while Moroccans for months protested corruption and unemployment. Tunisians are still waiting for their nascent democracy to trigger an economic revival. Saudi Arabia is trying to ween itself off oil dependency.
El-Sisi had even previously embraced defeat. When Egypt lost in the final of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, he met the team at the airport, shaking hands with the coach, the technical team and all 23 players.
“Where else does this happen — that a team which lost a championship gets presidential lauding?” said Ziad Akl, a researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a supporter of the country’s famed Al-Ahli club.
During the worst of the mass protests that roiled Morocco’s Hoceima region this year, images and videos on social media showed residents rooting for the national team’s opponents, as soccer became an outlet for the anger bottled up by heavy security patrols.
“Everyone needs something to help them clear their minds and occupy their thoughts, and for us, soccer does this,” said Mohsen Abbas, a 53-year-old Egyptian civil servant. “If we didn’t have this, and the hope that comes with making it into the World Cup, then we have nothing but the misery of trying to live day by day.”
— With assistance by Salah Slimani, and Tarik Bargal