Why Arab Countries Fail at Soccer

For the first time in nearly 40 years, no Middle Eastern team has reached the semifinals of the Asian Cup.

Arab or Muslim countries from the Middle East have captured eight of the last 11 Asian Cup titles (Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Iran ). Iraq won the last tournament in 2007.

Half of the teams participating in the current Asian Cup are members of the Arab League. If we add non-Arab, Shiite Iran to the equation, then that would mean a majority of the teams vying for the crown in Qatar are from our own backyard.

Given the fact that the tournament is being held this year in an Arab country for the first time in a dozen years, expectations were high that the "home field advantage" would translate into success on the pitch for Arab clubs.

This premise, was met, however, with a cold dose of reality, as none of the nine Middle Eastern countries managed to reach the semifinal stage. Four of them did reach the quarterfinals, but none of them advanced.

Australia vs. Iraq - Reuters
Reuters

Playing in front of its home crowd, Qatar failed to hold onto a lead against a 10-man Japan, which came back and won; Jordan, unsurprisingly, could not contend with Uzbekistan; Iraq faltered in extra time against Australia; and Iran also lost in extra time to South Korea. Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and even Asian power Saudi Arabia failed to advance past the early stages.

The last time no Arab countries were represented in the semifinals was 1972, nearly 40 years ago, the year Iran won the championship. The last time (and only time ) that neither an Arab or Muslim country from the Middle East failed to reach the semis was in 1964. It's not surprising none made the cut, though, since this was the year the Asian Cup was hosted by Israel and the Arab countries boycotted.

The scope of the failure witnessed during the Qatar games is unprecedented. The coach of the Qatar national team, Bruno Metsu, who led Senegal to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, believes that one reason for the poor showing could be attributed to the Gulf Cup of Nations tournament, which was held in December.

Many of the Arab teams taking part in the Asian Cup came straight from the Gulf competition. Metsu said that the physical and mental fatigue that accumulates with playing two major tournaments poses immense challenges for the players.

Metsu's reasoning is sound, except for the fact that teams which did not take part in the Gulf Cup of Nations, which in and of itself is a minor competition, also failed. The statistics show that the chronic losing is not limited to the Asian Cup, but also stretches all the way to the World Cup qualifiers. Since 1978, at least one Arab country (and Iran ) has represented Asia in the World Cup.

During the previous World Cup, however, no Middle Eastern country was present for the first time in 36 years. South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and Australia made it to the tournament, while New Zealand ousted Bahrain in the playoff stage. This is no coincidence, and coaches in the region know this very well.

Afshin Ghotbi, the highly regarded former coach of the Iranian national team, is cognizant of the problem. Ghotbi said that the fact that none of the semifinalists in the Asian Cup are from the Middle East is indicative of the fact that much work remains to be done in this area. He said that countries in the region should also focus on producing better coaches from within instead of importing them from other nations, much like Japan and South Korea, the two countries that are considered Asian powerhouses.

There is, of course, no shortage of cash in the Gulf states as well as in many Arab countries, where huge investments are made in the construction of practice facilities. It is not just Qatar - which was awarded the 2022 World Cup - but many other countries. Although foreign coaches are also brought in to help the teams, these countries must understand that money cannot solve all their problems.

While the facilities are state-of-the-art, sporting officials in these governments have failed to nurture young talent at the grass-roots level. This leaves the national teams depleted of talent, which translates into poor play on the pitch.

Qatar's decision to grant citizenship to some of its soccer stars originally from Africa or South America is certainly testament to the fact that young Qataris have very little opportunity for advancement.

The Asian Football Confederation is aware of the difficulties being experienced by the Middle Eastern countries. While the talent gap between Asia and the other continents - particularly Europe and South America - is considerable, the AFC points to countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia as rising powers while hoping that by 2022, western Asia will also produce a formidable squad.

Saudi Arabia may perhaps be the most glaring example of a once-ascendant team that has faltered in recent years. Between 1994 and 2006, it managed to qualify for the World Cup on four consecutive tries. It even earned an appearance in the round of 16. The Saudis also captured three Asian Cups and were finalists in three out of the last seven tournaments. During this tournament, however, Saudi Arabia was eliminated after three consecutive losses in the qualifying stage.

One impediment to success for the Saudis is the fact that its top soccer body is run by political cronies of the ruling Wahabi clan. In addition, the Saudi authorities have often fired quality foreign coaches on a whim, showing little to no patience.

The Saudis have also not adequately invested their resources in developing young local players, and the stars that do develop are not permitted to play in Europe, where they can improve even further.