The Gulf and the Beautiful Game

Foreign workers shine a bronze sculpture by French Algerian born artist Adel Abdessemed during its installation on October 4, 2013 on the Corniche in Doha after it was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority. (AFP PHOTO / AL-WATAN DOHA / KARIM JAAFAR) Foreign workers shine a bronze sculpture by French Algerian born artist Adel Abdessemed during its installation on October 4, 2013 on the Corniche in Doha after it was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority. (AFP PHOTO / AL-WATAN DOHA / KARIM JAAFAR)

Foreign workers shine a bronze sculpture by French Algerian born artist Adel Abdessemed during its installation on October 4, 2013 on the Corniche in Doha after it was bought by the Qatar Museums Authority. (AFP PHOTO / AL-WATAN DOHA / KARIM JAAFAR)

For the second tournament in a row, the Gulf states will be absent from the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which starts in Brazil on Thursday. Regional interest will be limited to Iran’s attempt to negotiate a finely balanced group containing Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Attention has also focused in recent days on British newspaper reports of alleged improprieties in Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Media suspicions draw upon the fact that European football has become big business for Gulf investors in recent years, as star players and teams fly to Dubai for winter breaks and fans take in games involving Gulf-owned teams at stadiums named after regional airlines. Yet the links between the international game and the Gulf go back decades and encompass a host of colorful personalities and memorable incidents.

The first Gulf Cooperation Council state to qualify for the World Cup was Kuwait in 1982. Since then, the United Arab Emirates took part in 1990 and Saudi Arabia qualified for four consecutive tournaments between 1994 and 2006; their second-round performance in 1994 remains the standout achievement by any Gulf side, and the only time that a Gulf state has qualified from the group stage. Iraq and Iran have also played in the World Cup, the former in 1986 and the latter in 1978, 1998 and 2006, with the 1998 appearance featuring a notable game between Iran and the United States, which the Iranians won 2–1. Bahrain twice reached the final Asian playoff stage in the qualification for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, while Qatar is currently scheduled to make its debut in the finals as host in 2022.

England managers past and present bookend the links between the Gulf and the World Cup. Nearly four decades have elapsed since Don Revie sensationally quit as England manager to coach the UAE squad. Revie took up his position in 1977 after unexpectedly walking out of the England job following a period of sustained criticism of the team’s poor performance. Regrettably, his departure was followed by a bout of lurid media speculation about the riches that were alleged to have lured him to the Gulf. Revie stayed in the UAE until 1980, and ended his career in Egypt before his untimely death in 1989. The current England manager, Roy Hodgson, also coached the UAE between 2002 and early 2004, when he was sacked following a disappointing performance at the 2003 Gulf Cup of Nations. During that tournament, Hodgson’s side finished fifth out of the seven teams, winning just two of their six games, against hosts Kuwait and perennial minnows Yemen. Years later, Hodgson recalled, somewhat undiplomatically, that “all these experiences enrich you and it was good to know I could get my message to players who many say are uncoachable.”

A third England manager also connects the job with the Gulf. Peter Taylor only took charge of England for one game in November 2000, but made it a memorable one with his decision to hand the captaincy to David Beckham, a decision confirmed by his successor Sven Goran Eriksson. After a spell in charge of the England Under-21 team, Taylor was appointed Bahrain coach in 2011. He enjoyed early success with a team that had so nearly reached the previous two World Cups, but was sacked following a disastrous showing at the 2012 Arab Nations Cup and a 6–2 rout by the UAE later in the year.

More remarkable still is the career of Brazil’s current technical director, Carlos Alberto Parreira. The high point of Parreira’s long coaching career came in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena in 1994, when Brazil ended a twenty-four-year wait for a fourth triumph with victory over Italy in a tense penalty shoot-out. Both before and after 1994, Parreira also coached three different Gulf nations in a World Cup, taking charge of Kuwait in 1982, the UAE in 1990 and Saudi Arabia in 1998. The latter campaign ended abruptly with his dismissal following a 4–0 defeat to host France in the second group game, a match remembered more for the first of Frenchman Zinedine Zidane’s two World Cup red cards, eight years before Zidane made global headlines by head-butting Italy’s Marco Materazzi in the dying moments of the 2006 World Cup final.

Many England fans fondly recall Kuwait in the context of the 1982 World Cup. Having qualified for the first, and so far only, time, Kuwait and England were drawn in the same group as Czechoslovakia and France. The Kuwaitis performed creditably, drawing 1–1 with the Czechs and losing a hard-fought game 1–0 to England thanks to a Trevor Francis goal. However, it is the Kuwaitis’ 4–1 defeat to eventual semi-finalists France that lives longest in the memory. Having conceded a controversial goal scored by footballing great Alain Giresse, Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmad Al Sabah, the head of the Kuwait Football Association and a brother of the Emir, stormed onto the pitch to complain to the referee, who subsequently changed his mind and disallowed the goal. Sheikh Fahad later became the most senior member of the Kuwaiti ruling family to be killed in the Iraqi invasion of August 2, 1990.

Another goal—this time legitimate—that stands out in the minds of many fans is Saeed Owairan’s mesmerizing goal for Saudi Arabia against Belgium in the 1994 World Cup. Picking up the ball inside his own half, Owairan slalomed past five Belgian players before scoring the goal that gave the Saudis a famous 1–0 victory and secured qualification for the second round. In 2002, FIFA ranked Owairan’s goal the sixth best in their “Goal of the Century” listing. Unhappily for Saudi Arabia, that win against Belgium remains their last in the World Cup itself, as their results in succeeding tournaments deteriorated steadily. The nadir was an 8–0 thrashing from Germany in Japan in 2002, a match notable in retrospect for marking the World Cup debut of prolific German marksman Miroslav Klose, who scored a hat-trick of headers.

The record of the Gulf states at the World Cup finals is replete with interest that goes far beyond the mostly meager results on the pitch. The inexorable globalization of football has given an added dimension to the region’s interaction with the beautiful game. Just last week, the announcement that Spain’s World Cup-winning striker David Villa had joined the Abu Dhabi-backed Major League Soccer team New York City FC was another reminder of the power of Gulf financial backing. The spotlight may be shining harshly on Qatar in connection with the 2022 World Cup, but the region looks set to remain a focal point in world football for years to come.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla or Asharq Al-Awsat.