A look at World Cup qualification in the Middle East

June 15, 2014

The usual suspects Italy, Germany, Spain, and Argentina will all take their places alongside Brazil in this month’s FIFA World Cup. But what about the world’s smaller nations for who qualifying for the world’s biggest sporting event remains a distant fantasy?

In an exclusive excerpt adapted from the book Thirty-One Nil: on the road with football’s outsiders, EDGAR looks at qualification in the Middle East. 

Red, white and green

Abu Dhabi is coloured red, white and green but not, as it usually is on an international fixture, with the colour of the Emirati flag. It is the day of the UAE v Lebanon World Cup qualifier and the streets outside the capital’s Al-Nahyan Stadium are filled with Lebanese fans of every religious and political persuasion. Everyone, it seems, is holding or wearing a Lebanese flag.

Female volunteers are even stationed on the pavements to paint the Lebanese flag on to the faces of supporters. There are as many as 100,000 Lebanese expats in the UAE and 350,000 across the Persian Gulf. The civil war has spread its sons and daughters far and wide.

One estimate suggests as many as fourteen million Lebanese have settled abroad, the vast majority of them in Brazil. ‘It’s an amazing feeling when we are all together supporting our team,’ explains Ahmed and his wife, Roula, Lebanese expats from Abu Dhabi, as they take in the patriotic scene. With two hours to go before kick-off, the members of the team emerge one by one into the packed lobby.

They push through the fans, politicians and businessmen – both Christians and Muslims – as they congratulate them, ruffle their hair and place scarves with the Lebanese flag around their shoulders. Lebanon coach Theo Bucker emerges last – congratulated by everybody within arm’s length of him – wide-eyed as if arriving at his own surprise birthday party. football3 Bucker’s one selection headache is who to play in goal. Safa goalkeeper Ziad al-Samad had been first choice, but had suffered constant criticism in the press for his lack of height and his excess weight.

Even though he had let no one down in qualification, Bucker replaces him with Abbas Hassan, a former Under 21 Swedish international who plays for IFK Norrkoping in the Swedish first division. When the UAE captain Basheer Saeed floats a fairly tame free-kick over the wall, Hassan somehow manages to palm the ball into his own net. The crowd shrieks. His team-mates hold their heads in their hands. Luckily, Mahmoud El Ali, the Al-Ahed striker who has been singled out by his club coach as the star to watch, bursts through and equalises before half-time.

The bad news is that the Emirati goalkeeper hits him with such force that he ruptures a cruciate ligament, is stretchered off the pitch and out of the game for six months. It will turn out to be El Ali’s last ever Lebanese national team goal, but not because of the injury he sustained. A

hmad Zreik plays his part, too. With the UAE 2-1 up, it is his pace that finds the space for him to cross for another Al-Ahed team-mate, Hassan Maatouk, to equalise. Both of Lebanon’s goals have been scored and made by players trained on pitches allegedly paid for by Hezbollah. The second half goes badly for Lebanon. They concede twice but, with South Korea scoring late on against Kuwait, it doesn’t matter.

When the referee blows the final whistle the team know they have made it to the final round of World Cup qualification for the first time in their history even after losing 4-2. Lebanon reaching the fourth and final round was perhaps the only shock in 2014 Asian World Cup qualification. Iraq, like the Lebanese, had also managed to construct a successful multiconfessional team that had thrived.

The Brazilian legend Zico was now in charge of a team that had some experience of victory. The Lions of Mesopotamia famously won the 2007 Asian Cup, the Asian equivalent of the Copa America or European Championships, when the country was in the darkest days of its civil war. Tens of thousands took to the streets of Baghdad to celebrate a victory for a team comprised of Sunni, Shia, Kurd and Turkmen. football7 Hundreds of celebrating fans lost their lives as insurgents targeted anything and anyone who celebrated unity rather than sectarian division. Now, though, Zico had taken Iraq into the next round, hoping to emulate the 1986 team that made it to Mexico, although not the circumstances that surrounded that success. I

t would later emerge that the 1986 team had been terrorised by Uday Hussein, Saddam’s sadistic eldest son, who controlled the team and the federation by fear, torturing players who underperformed or ‘embarrassed’ him.

Bahrain's suspicious 10-0

Former England coach Peter Taylor had taken charge of the Bahrain national team in the aftermath of a revolution in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom. With a population of just 1.3 million, Bahrain had come within a goal of becoming the smallest nation ever to qualify for the World Cup finals when they lost to New Zealand in an inter-continental playoff in the run-up to South Africa 2010.

But, in 2011, the Arab world rose up in a series of pro-democracy and freedom protests. In Bahrain the majority Shia population rose against the minority Sunni monarchy, but the protests were crushed. Among the protesters were several leading sportsmen and women, including key players in the national team: brothers A’ala and Mohamed Hubail and Sayed Mohamed Adnan, the cultured midfielder who missed a crucial penalty in Wellington when the match against New Zealand was still 0-0.

The Bahraini authorities punished them for the insubordination. They were arrested and jailed. The Hubail brothers later alleged torture and they were banned from ever again playing for the national team. When interviewed by ESPN’s investigative programme E:60, Peter Taylor seemed to have no idea who these players were. ‘I knew nothing of the politics of the situation. I was just a coach, in charge of the football team. That was it,’ he would later tell me on the phone, pleading his innocence, when he was back in the UK. football6 Even without Bahrain’s key players – even if he didn’t know he was actually missing his key players in the first place – Taylor had managed to keep the team’s interest in World Cup qualification alive until the last group game. The problem was that to progress he needed Iran to beat Qatar in Tehran, and for Bahrain to beat Indonesia by nine goals.

The game in Indonesia, despite the country having a population of 238 million people with an almost religious devotion to English football, was in chaos. Endemic corruption and an unsanctioned break away league had meant that the majority of seasoned Indonesian internationals were not picked. They had lost every game in qualification and the Bahrain match did not start well when their goalkeeper was sent off after three minutes. The referee awarded four penalties, two of which were saved, and Bahrain went on to win 10-0.

Bahrain would have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for an eighty fourth-minute Qatari equaliser in front of 90,000 fans at Iran’s Azadi Stadium. That game finished 2-2 but the result in Manama was so suspicious that FIFA launched an investigation immediately after the match. ‘We did nothing wrong,’ Taylor pleaded after the game. ‘There is no need for us to speak to FIFA. At the end of the day, the game was played and we did as well as we possibly could and played the strongest team we could.’

Taylor seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that match fixing might have taken place, especially during a World Cup qualifier. His competitive nature was disarmingly honest, too. ‘We should have won by more than ten,’ he added. ‘We missed two penalties.’ Match fixing and corruption couldn’t have been further from Theo Bucker’s mind as he sat in the dugout of Al-Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi watching his dejected players trudge off the pitch. football1 They had qualified but it didn’t taste like victory. Bucker was livid. ‘We were not focused and were scared, we scored OWN GOALS!’ he shouts incredulously as we both sat on the bench. His eyes were focused, not on me, but disapprovingly on his players. ‘This was the aim we had from the beginning and when we started talking about this out loud people were laughing at us,’ he says of the team’s progress, for the first time showing a little happiness about Lebanon’s historic qualification to the next round.

‘Then we started to play good matches and win matches. We have to calculate that sometimes our progress is going in waves, up and down. But we have to recognise the trend. The crowd is one of the points I was counting on, it was an atmosphere like at home. Which is why I couldn’t understand.’

Bucker travelled to Malaysia for the Asian Football Confederation’s final 2014 World Cup qualification draw and saw his Lebanese team placed in a tough group with South Korea, Qatar, Uzbekistan and Iran.

As with most of the campaign, indeed as with most of Lebanon’s history, fate has not been kind. Their final match was to be against huge favourites, Iran – in Tehran.

Details: Adapted from Thirty One Nil: On The Road With Football’s Outsiders, by James Montague. The book is published by Bloomsbury and is available from all good book stores. Visit: bloomsbury.com