A young Tunisian supporter follows the 2018 World Cup Group G soccer game between Belgium and Tunisia, in La Marsa, outskirts of Tunis, Tunisia, Saturday, June 23, 2018. Tunisia lost the match 2-5. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi)

Tunisia's defeat caps a miserable World Cup for Arab nations

June 23, 2018 - 12:08 pm

MOSCOW (AP) — Arab nations came to the World Cup with high hopes but they've been dashed.

With four Arab teams in the tournament — the most ever — and one of the game's biggest stars in Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah, some sensed this could be Arab football's breakthrough year.

So far, Arab teams have played eight and lost eight, and Salah has been subdued by a shoulder injury.

By the time Tunisia took the field Saturday to face Belgium, coach Nabil Maaloul felt "the eyes of the Arab world" on his team. In a sign of broader solidarity, several Algerian and Palestinian flags hung from Tunisian sectors of Spartak Stadium.

Tunisia's defensive shortcomings were exposed in a 5-2 loss that leaves it needing a string of unlikely results to avoid elimination.

"We did not disappoint the Arab world. We did not give up on our Arab fans," Maaloul said.

The coach praised his team's fighting spirit but diagnosed some shared malaise in soccer across the Arab world.

"We have common problems," he said. "I think we need to change our lifestyle, because it is not in line with high-level football. We need to change the way we train. I am not giving up but I think we need two more generations to reach the required level of performance. In terms of fitness and physical strength, we are far from a high level."

Arab countries also lack good youth academies, Maaloul added. "We need to have players who are professional at a very young age, 12 or 13, to improve their performance at a later stage."

The four Arab countries in the World Cup differ culturally and economically, from the oil wells of Saudi Arabia to Tunisia's tourist beaches and Morocco's mountains. They speak Arabic, but a Saudi might struggle even to understand the various North African dialects.

The reasons for Arab countries' failures at the World Cup are just as diverse — injuries, bad luck and a simple lack of quality.

Egypt's chances took a heavy hit when Salah tangled with Sergio Ramos in the Champions League final last month and damaged his shoulder ligaments.

Salah missed Egypt's opening 1-0 loss to Uruguay, and the team seemed toothless in attack without him. While he did return to face Russia on Tuesday, he was clearly not fully fit and reluctant to get into physical challenges. He did score a penalty in Egypt's 3-1 loss.

Salah's World Cup may be better remembered for him accepting honorary citizenship from the ruler of the Russian region of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses.

Juan Antonio Pizzi — Saudi Arabia's third coach in the last 12 months — tried to play possession football but ended up conceding five goals in the opening game against Russia. Morocco — days after its bid to host the 2026 World Cup failed — fought hard against Iran and Portugal but lost both games 1-0, the first thanks to an own goal, the second after a string of near-misses.

Despite failing in Russia, the Arab world will be back in the spotlight when Qatar hosts the World Cup in 2022. As Qatar and Saudi Arabia, locked in a bitter regional power struggle, fight over sports influence and TV rights, Arab politics are becoming soccer politics.


More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup


James Ellingworth is at https://twitter.com/jellingworth

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