Skip to main content

World Cup 2018: Egypt and Saudi Arabia paired together in Red Sea derby

Saudi Arabia also set to face hosts Russia in opening game in Moscow with Tunisia, Morocco and Iran also among the 32 finalists
Egypt's Mohamed Salah is among the star players set to feature at next year's World Cup in Russia (AFP)

Middle Eastern regional allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia are set to face each other at next year's football World Cup after being drawn together in Group A, along with host nation Russia.

Tunisia are set to play England in their opening game, as well as facing off against Belgium and Panama in Group G.  

Iran and Morocco may face an uphill struggle to get out of the group stages: they face Europeans champions Portugal and former World Cup winners Spain in Group B.

Only two teams can qualify from each group for the knockout stages of the 32-team tournament, which kicks off on 14 June.

The match between Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be each team's final match of the group stage and takes place in Volgograd on 25 June.

Saudi Arabia and Russia will also kick off the tournament in Moscow on 14 June, while Egypt begin against Uruguay on 15 June in Ekaterinburg.

The match between Egypt and Saudi Arabia brings together teams who are considered to be political allies, with Saudi Arabia supporting the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who seized power in a coup which overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

But Sisi's alliance with Riyadh is not widely popular, with some Egyptians protesting earlier this year over a deal struck by Sisi which saw the uninhabited but strategically important Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir pass from Egyptian to Saudi control.

It's the first time that four Arab nations have qualified for the World Cup finals. Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia all reached Russia via the African qualifying tournament, while Saudi Arabia played their way through the Asian qualifying tournament.

Tunisia are the highest ranked team among the Arab quartet, ranked 27th in the world, with Egypt ranked 31st, Morocco 40th and Saudi Arabia 63rd.

Tunisia will play England in Volgograd on 18 June, Belgium in Moscow on 23 June and Panama in Saransk on 28 June.

Morocco kick off against Iran in St. Petersburg on 15 June, then play Portugal in Moscow on 20 June, and Spain in Kaliningrad on 25 June.

Iran qualified for the fifth time in the history of the tournament. They have been managed by former Manchester United and Sporting Lisbon coach Carlos Queiroz for the last six years.

Under his leadership, Iran are currently the highest rated Asian side at 32nd in the world rankings. However, the team has only won once at the World Cup finals, famously beating the United States 2-1 at France 1998.

After their opening game against Morocco, Iran face Spain in Kazan on 20 June and Portugal in Saransk on 25 June.

First time for two decades

Morocco will be making their first trip to the finals since the 1998 tournament, having beaten Ivory Coast on their way to qualifying for next year's tournament. The team will be captained by 30-year-old Mehdia Benatia, who plays for Italian side Juventus. 

Fellow North African nation Tunisia, known as the Carthage Eagles, are going to their fifth World Cup finals, and their first tournament since 2006.

Egypt's qualification - their first since the 1990 tournament in Italy - proved tense for their supporters: they only secured their place in Russia when Mohamed Salah, who plays for English Premier League side Liverpool, scored in the 94th minute against Congo.

Saudi Arabia finished second in Asian qualifying Group B behind Japan, the fifth time that the country has qualified.

The prospects of any of the four Arab teams or Iran making it anywhere close to the final in Moscow on 15 July appear slim. The best previous performances by Arab teams have been places in the last 16; an achievement shared by Morocco in 1986, Saudi Arabia in 1994, and Algeria in 2014.

The tournament, which takes place every four years and was first staged in 1930, is set to be played in the Middle East for the first time in 2022 when Qatar will host the tournament. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.