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Qatar World Cup 2022: Five Middle Eastern and North African teams competing for glory

The closest a team from the region has come to winning the World Cup was Turkey’s run to the semi-finals in 2002
Morocco will be facing Belgium, Canada, and Croatia in the group stage (AFP/Andy Lyons)
Morocco will be facing Belgium, Canada and Croatia in the group stage (AFP/Andy Lyons)

When it comes to the Qatar World Cup 2022, the five Middle Eastern and North African teams participating will enter with the knowledge that no team from outside of Europe or Latin America has reached the World Cup Final.

The best performance for a Middle Eastern team came with Turkey's semi-final run in the 2002 edition in South Korea and Japan - but even that comes with the caveat that the Turks play in Uefa tournaments, so are considered a European side.

Nevertheless, football is a sport known for throwing up surprises. Who could have imagined that a Balkan state with a population half that of London's would end up in the final in 2018? Croatia's spectacular run to the final, where they were bested by France, proves that nothing is impossible when it comes to the World Cup.

With the odds stacked against them, we look at the teams looking to make a mark on football's greatest stage.


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The announcement in December 2010 that the Gulf state of Qatar would host the 2022 edition of football's most prestigious tournament sent shockwaves across the world.

A first for the Arab world, criticism centred on the state's record on workers' rights and whether it had the footballing pedigree to host the competition.

More than a decade later, the country continues to face criticism over the former, but has made some progress in building its reputation as a footballing nation.

Felix Sanchez (centre) with his Qatari players during the 2021 Fifa Arab Cup (AFP/Karim Jaafar)

The country's greatest sporting achievement came in 2019 when a Qatar side led by manager Felix Sanchez steamrollered into the final of the Asian Cup, beating Japan to take home the title.

As hosts, Qatar did not have to take part in qualifying as they had a guaranteed spot in the tournament. It was an achievement as political as it was sporting, with victory occurring in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi without Qatari fans in the stadium. A diplomatic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt meant Qatari citizens could not travel to the UAE to watch their team win.

With home advantage and the honour of being Asian champions, expectations are high among Qatari fans that their team will give them a performance to be proud of during the World Cup.

Saudi Arabia

Having qualified for the tournament six times, the best Saudi Arabia have done in the World Cup was in the US in 1994.

Nicknamed the Falcons, the Saudi team reached the Round of 16, where they were beaten by a Swedish team that ended up finishing third.

That tournament will be remembered for a spectacular solo goal by Saeed al-Owairan in a win against Belgium in the group stage.

Saudi players sing their national anthem during the 2021 Fifa Arab Cup in Qatar (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Despite winning three Asian Cup titles, the Saudis have struggled to replicate their continental success on the world stage, and the side hold the dubious distinction of having suffered the biggest defeat of the tournament in the 21st century. An 8-0 defeat against Germany in 2002 will be a distant memory come November, but facing the likes of Lionel Messi's Argentina in the group stage will be a big challenge.


Like Saudi Arabia, Iran will be participating in their sixth tournament, having never got past the group stage in previous attempts.

Their greatest World Cup moment came in 1998, when the team defeated the US in a thrilling 2-1 win, which saw the squad storm the field in jubilation on the final whistle.

The side will get a chance to relive that encounter, having been pitted against the US in the group stage in Qatar, alongside England and Wales.

Iran celebrate after scoring against the UAE during World Cup qualifiers in February 2022 (AFP/Atta Kenare)

Geopolitics and sport are sometimes impossible to separate, and coming amid talks to revive a nuclear deal scuppered by the Trump administration, the tensions between the two states are as high as at any time since the 1979 revolution.

A planned friendly match between Iran and Canada in June was cancelled due to tensions, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly questioning the wisdom of holding the game.

With the World Cup, there's little option but for the Iranians and the US to face each other, and the game will therefore be closely followed by neutrals.


In 1978, the Tunisian national football team appeared in their debut World Cup match against Mexico in the Argentinian city of Rosario. The team won convincingly, beating the Mexicans 3-1, but losses against Poland and West Germany meant the North Africans got no further than the first round.

Tunisia have since appeared in four more World Cup tournaments but have only registered one win, in 2018 against Panama.

Tunisian players train at the El Menzah stadium in Tunis in December 2021 (AFP/Fethi Belaid)

The team will face a tall order in Qatar, having to take on reigning world champions France, but both Australia and Denmark represent a conquerable opponent. Overcoming either will be crucial if the Tunisians are to make the knockout round for the first time in their history.

The players will have bittersweet memories of Qatar, where they lost the 2021 Fifa Arab Cup final in extra-time against Algeria in December 2021.


Besides Saudi Arabia, Morocco are the only Middle Eastern or North African team at the Qatar World Cup to have previously got past the group stage. That was in 1986 in Mexico, when they topped a group featuring England, Portugal and Poland undefeated.

Morocco and PSG defender Achraf Hakimi will hope to play an important part in his country's World Cup campaign (AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard)
PSG defender Achraf Hakimi could be key to Morocco's World Cup campaign (AFP/Kenzo Tribouillard)

England would go out to eventual winners Argentina, thanks to Maradona's "Hand of God" in the quarter finals, while Morocco fell at the round of 16 after a 1-0 defeat to eventual finalists West Germany.

Going into 2022, the Moroccans will be helmed in the defence by Paris-Saint Germain star Achraf Hakimi, but will suffer from the absence of Chelsea's Hakim Ziyech. The attacking midfielder retired from international football after quarrelling with the then Morocco coach Vahid Halilhodzic.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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