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At the World Cup 2018, regional rivalries play out on the pitch

June 25, 2018 at 2:29 pm

Mohamed Salah (10) of Egypt in action during the 2018 FIFA World Cup match against Russia on 19 June 2018 [Gökhan Balcı/Anadolu Agency]

Last week, not even Egypt’s fourth pyramid Mohammad Salah could save the Pharaoh’s from their 3-1 defeat against Russia. A further loss against Uruguay secured the Egyptian team seats on a one-way flight back to Cairo after a dismal two matches at the 2018 World Cup.

Salah was embroiled in controversy over the weekend after the leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been accused of extrajudicial killings and torture, made him an honoury citizen of the Chechen Republic. Reports this morning say he is considering quitting the national team, something the Egyptian FA has denied.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia suffered an even more humiliating downfall against Russia who beat them 5-0 in the opening match, which was followed by a 1-0 defeat against Uruguay. All that’s left now is for the two teams to go head-to-head to decide who will be awarded the wooden spoon by being bottom of their group.

Many took solace in the fact that Egyptian strongman Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who are accustomed to getting what they want at home by torturing and imprisoning thousands of opposition members, will go home with nothing. On the World Cup stage success cannot be won through coercion, it can only be won through skill, talent, and ultimately a good football team.

The 2018 World Cup has many political layers. Now that KSA’s future has been determined observers have weighed up the implications of their biggest regional rival on the political stage – Iran – going through to the quarter-finals, which is still a possibility. When Team Melli beat Morocco 2-1 it was the first time in 20 years Iran had won a World Cup fixture.

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Reports detail how Saudi and Israel are moving closer together based on their “common threat” – Iran, which in return does not recognise Israel. Iran banned two players Masoud Shojaei and Ehsan Hajsafi from playing in their national team for life after they played against Maccabi Tel Aviv with their Greek team Panionios, however they still made it onto the World Cup squad.

Before the tournament even began Argentina cancelled a World Cup friendly with Israel scheduled to take place shortly after the Israeli army massacred more than 60 people in Gaza during the Great March of Return protests.

Israeli forces fire tear gas at protesters during the Great March of Return in Gaza on 23 June 2018 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

“What happened… is a red card from the rest of the world to Israelis,” President of the Palestinian Football Association Jibril Rajoub said, not long after the decision was announced.

Of course, the whole setting of the World Cup is political. After London blamed Moscow for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury earlier this year there has been a deep freeze in relations between the two countries.

Theresa May announced that no ministers or diplomats would attend and across the UK there were calls to boycott the tournament altogether, compounded in this open letter from MEPs:

“While we agree that sport can help build metaphorical bridges, as long as Putin is blowing up real ones in Syria we cannot pretend this World Cup is just like any other major sporting event.”

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This may have trickled down into the public – there are notably less flags and in general World Cup fever on the streets – however, on a governmental level Iceland was the only country that stood in solidarity with the British prime minister by holding back officials from attending.

In the early days of the tournament a photo of MBS and Putin did the rounds. It attracted interest firstly because it confirmed that MBS was not in fact dead, as was heavily speculated after heavy gunfire was reported outside his palace in Riyadh in April.


The handshake was not what people expected of two leaders who are on opposite sides in the Syrian war – Putin is a staunch ally of Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad, whilst Saudi has been funneling money to the opposition. But politics is fickle and two of the world’s largest exporters of oil used the global sporting event to discuss the management of exports.

Whilst regional politics play out in this year’s sporting event it’s worth considering what will happen at the next World Cup, Qatar 2022. It is the first time a country in the Arab world has hosted the event but it is also a country which has been placed under air, sea and land blockade by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt for over a year now.

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This standoff has manifested itself on the football pitch. Over the weekend the Egyptian squad racked up a $100,000 fine from FIFA after they refused to talk to the Qatari sports channel beIN which holds exclusive rights to broadcast the World Cup across the region.

Saudi Arabian and Russian footballers seen during the opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2018 on June 14, 2018 [@QatarAirways / Twitter]

Saudi Arabian and Russian footballers seen during the opening match of the FIFA World Cup 2018 on June 14, 2018 [@QatarAirways / Twitter]

The quartet have tried all manner of tactics to force the Gulf country to give up its winning bid. Three years ago FA chairman Greg Dyke called for Qatar to be forced to give up the right to host the World Cup if evidence of corruption was found and since then the embargo’s backers have pressed for this to happen. But reports conducted by FIFA investigators have returned nothing.

The quartet have said that if Qatar concedes defeat they will lift the siege. As this is looking increasingly unlikely they may just have to attend, with their tails between their legs. That would be Qatar 1, the quartet 0.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.