x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Middle East misses out on all the fun

Last night's star-studded World Cup draw in front of a global audience had one thing missing - a team from the Gulf region.

Germany's Oliver Bierhoff is tackled by Iran's Nader Mohammadkhani, left, and Karim Bagheri, right, during their meeting in France '98. Although Iran failed to win they did have the satisfaction of beating the US.
Germany's Oliver Bierhoff is tackled by Iran's Nader Mohammadkhani, left, and Karim Bagheri, right, during their meeting in France '98. Although Iran failed to win they did have the satisfaction of beating the US.

Last night's star-studded World Cup draw in front of a global audience had one thing missing - a team from the Middle East. Not since 1974 has the region failed to provide a representative to the World Cup, and that's if you count an Israel team who appeared at Mexico 1970 after most teams in Asia refused to play them.

Before then you have to stretch all the way back to 1934 when Egypt beat Palestine to appear in Italy. They lasted one match. Middle Eastern football has moved on a lot since then, but the qualifying campaign for next year's finals in South Africa has been one to forget. Take Asian champions Iraq, who failed to reach the final Asian qualifying stage despite Qatar fielding an ineligible player. Emerson, it turned out, had lied on his birth certificate and had, therefore, played for Brazil when he was over 21.

Despite it being a clear contravention of Fifa's rules, which awards a 3-0 walkover in such circumstances, Iraq went out. Why? They filed their paperwork late. Iran, gripped by political protests and hamstrung by the poor management of legendary player Ali Daei, were nine minutes away from the finals before a Park Ji Sung goal for South Korea sealed their fate. Perennial qualifiers Saudi Arabia would have made it five World Cups in a row but conceded a last-minute goal to Bahrain, who somehow went on to lose against a New Zealand side who only had to beat the likes of Vanuatu to reach the intercontinental play-off.

Some Arabian allegiance has now been switched to Algeria. But given the violence that spanned three continents in the aftermath of the Desert Foxes' win over African champions Egypt, a victory that sparked a diplomatic incident so severe that none other than Muammer Qadafi was drafted in to broker the peace, there is unlikely to be much support forthcoming, especially in Cairo. A World Cup without the Middle East will be a very dull place indeed.

Whilst the region has only appeared in the second round of the finals once, when Saudi Arabia shocked everyone by beating Belgium to reach the knock-out phase at USA '94, the region has been responsible for some of the most memorable, not to mention strangest, moments in World Cup history. Iran reaching Argentina '78 marked the start of an unbroken run of Middle Eastern qualification that will broken in South Africa next year.

The team qualified just as the country was sliding towards an Islamic revolution but managed to secure an historic draw with a Scotland team with delusions of World Cup grandeur. Yet six months later that team were gone, the league disbanded. Many of those players fled the country, including defender Andranik Eskandarian, who found himself playing in the same New York Cosmos side as Carlos Alberto and Franz Beckenbauer.

It wasn't until France '98 that Iran graced the finals again, but it would provide the country's finest footballing moment. Early on, the group fixture against the United States - who had reached the second round four years previously - was marked for its symbolism. It was the first contact the two nations had had in the 19 years since the Islamic Revolution. Then US president Bill Clinton recorded a message before the match preaching reconciliation.

Iran's European fans tried to smuggle opposition T-shirts against the Islamic regime into the ground. Ironically, current Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi was a scout for the US team ahead of the match. The world waited for the two countries' political antipathy to spill out on to the pitch. Instead, the world watched as the Iranian players showered their American opponents with symbolic white flowers followed by warm, smiling embraces.

It resembled a first date more than the opening salvos of a proxy political battle. Iran's captain - goalkeeper Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh - shook hands with his American counterpart Thomas Dooley and handed over a large silver shield bigger than a small child to show conciliation and friendship towards their American foes. Dooley sheepishly handed over a tiny pennant in reply, too embarrassed to make eye contact with his adversary. It was singularly one of the funniest moments in international football.

The Americans were visibly stunned, so much so they conspired to lose 2-1, provoking the biggest gathering on Tehran's streets since Imam Khomeini's funeral in 1989. Whilst the Americans gracefully took the defeat in the spirit of international fraternity, the Ayatollah back in Tehran was eager to make political capital. "Tonight again," he sternly extolled in an address to the national team on state television. "The strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands. Be happy that you have made the Iranian nation happy."

"All we cared about, our only goal [at France '98] was to win against the USA," recalled Ali Daei, who played in that match. "But we didn't take it seriously for the last match against Germany so that we could qualify for the second round." Daei had hoped for redemption when Team Meli qualified for Germany '06 with the "golden generation" of players that included the likes of Ali Karimi, the "Asian Maradona". But their appearance was dogged by protests from pro-Israel groups livid at president Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial.

Some western politicians had even suggested throwing Iran out because of its nuclear ambitions whilst others urged the German government to enact their own Holocaust denial laws to have Ahmadinejad arrested if he arrived at the match. Instead, he sent one of his deputies, Mohammad Aliabadi, which didn't gone down too well either. "Aliabadi's presence means we could have a repeat of the 1936 Olympics, when they were hijacked by Hitler for his own political purposes and presentation," said Rene Pollak, chairman of the Zionist Federation of Frankfurt, before the opening group game against Mexico. "We should have denied him entry to the country. Western leaders should know by now that appeasing fascist regimes does not work."

In the end, Iran went home with a solitary point whilst the head of the Iranian FA lost his job. At least the Iranian players were considered untouchable on their return. Not so the Iraqi team who qualified for Mexico '86. Ahmed-Rahim Hamed played in that great Iraqi team of the 1980s, considered to be the country's finest-ever crop of players. Back then he was a 23-year-old striker and one of the youngest in the squad, playing alongside arguably Iraq's greatest ever player Hussein Saeed Mohammed.

The team narrowly lost all three games by a single goal against Paraguay, Belgium and hosts Mexico. To an outsider this was a respectable result for a team from a part of the world so maligned by Fifa that Asia received just two World Cup spots. But the players knew that anything less than silverware would upset the man who had been put in charge of Iraqi football: Uday Hussein. Saddam's bloodthirsty eldest son had a myriad of interests - torture, extortion and football.

He was handed the keys to Iraq's sporting empire, which he used to feather his own nest as head of Iraq's Olympic committee. He also used some of his unique motivational skills on Iraq's footballers. "You knew that if you didn't play well, Uday would do something bad," Hamad explained. "I loved Kevin Keegan, he was my best player, and I had a perm like him. "After one game Uday shaved everybody's hair. That's when I lost my perm."

Those who managed to escape the carnage told horrific stories of torture and abuse. "I was the referee of a match between Al Shorta and the club of the air force," Ahmed Kadoim, a Fifa-recognised referee, told Sports Illustrated in 2001. "I was told that Shorta should win, but I refused to fix the match. "It ended at 2-2. I was taken by Uday's men to Al Radwaniya prison, where they used hoses and a cane to beat me three times a day.

"My punishment was 10 beatings each time. "When I was bleeding, they forced me into a pool of sewage. The guards laughed and said, 'You should have let them win.' "I still am in pain nearly a year later." By the time US forces had taken Baghdad and searched the Iraqi Olympic Committees head quarters, they had discovered several medieval torture devices used by Uday, including a rack. Not all appearances at the World Cup were tinged with such tragedy.

Some, like Kuwait's appearance at Spain '82, were simply comical. But it wasn't for the standard of football, especially after Kuwait earned a creditable draw against a Czechoslovakia side who had only a few years previously won the European Championship. No, it was for the events that took place when Kuwait played a classy French side who had just gone 4-1 up. Or so the French thought. When the fourth goal went in the entire Kuwaiti team were standing stock still, claiming to have heard the referees whistle.

The French played on and scored. The Kuwaitis were livid but the referee had made his decision; it was a goal. The ball had even been placed back on the centre spot. But from the stands a man wearing traditional Gulf Arab dress waved towards the disgusted Kuwaiti players, urging them to leave the pitch in protest. Sheikh Fahid Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah - brother of the emir and head of the Kuwaiti FA - descended on to the pitch with his red-and-white checked headscarf and black-and-gold cloak to calmly question the referee's wisdom.

Amazingly, the referee backed down and called a drop ball. It was the last time he would referee an international match. The Sheikh was fined US$10,000 (Dh36,731). In Italia '90, the UAE and Egypt made debut World Cup appearances. Each player was promised a brand new Rolls-Royce for every goal they scored. The Emirates lost all three of their games, conceding 11 goals, but two players, Khalid Ismail and Ali Thani, returned home to find new Rolls-Royces parked on the driveways.

Egypt narrowly failed to qualify out of a tough group that included England and Holland. USA '94 was perhaps the region's finest triumph, when Saudi Arabia reached the second round. En route they scored one of the finest goals in World Cup history, Saeed al Owairan picking the ball up near his own penalty box and, aping Maradona's wonder goal against England in Mexico '86, slaloming past the entire Belgium team before slotting the ball home.

France '98 was less successful for the Saudis and the less said about their 2002 appearance in Japan and Korea, which saw them hammered 8-0 by Germany, the better. It could have been worse: the Germans had 26 shots on target. But 2006 did provide one bright spot. Legendary striker Sami al Jaber became one of the few players to appear in four World Cup finals, scoring in three of them. No doubt the draw for South Africa was watched by millions of fans across the Middle East, even if it was tinged with a hint of sadness.

The autopsy as to why no West Asian teams have made it to the finals has already started. For now, though, let's all look forward to the greatest football tournament on the earth. There's always Qatar 2022, after all. @Email:sports@thenational.ae