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A winning World Cup strategy for the Arab world

Morocco’s Yassine Bounou clears from France’s Randal Kolo Muani, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor, Qatar, Dec. 14, 2022. (Reuters)
Morocco’s Yassine Bounou clears from France’s Randal Kolo Muani, Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor, Qatar, Dec. 14, 2022. (Reuters)
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16 Dec 2022 02:12:50 GMT9
16 Dec 2022 02:12:50 GMT9

For decades, the Arab world has suffered from disunity. While it is connected by geography, language and culture, the region’s lack of cohesion has long allowed foreign powers to plunder its resources. The legacy of colonial divide-and-rule tactics remains pervasive and parochialism has prevented Arabs from leveraging their huge oil wealth and relatively educated populations. But the FIFA World Cup has shown us another way.

Football has emerged as a great unifier following a string of unexpected victories for Arab countries. In November, Saudi Arabia beat Argentina, Tunisia defeated France and Morocco routed Belgium. Then, during the knockout stage, Morocco made history by eliminating both Spain and Portugal to become the first Arab country to secure a place in the semifinals.

Morocco’s victories were the result of a perfectly executed plan devised by coach Walid Regragui, who placed goalkeeper Yassine Bounou at the center of the team’s strategy. Bounou repeatedly stymied Spain’s attempts to score and Morocco went on to eliminate the team in a penalty shootout. Nor could Portugal’s attackers find a way to beat Bounou as Regragui’s side pulled off a stunning 1-0 win. “I’m trying to think of when such a shock as this has happened in the World Cup,” one pundit told the BBC. “Pinch me, I’m dreaming,” Bounou said.

While Morocco’s run ultimately came to an end with a narrow defeat by reigning champions France, the team’s success was no dream. Morocco knew it was an underdog from the beginning. Its plan involves a defense-heavy 4-1-4-1 formation that leverages the strength of its star goalkeeper. But every position is crucial and requires the utmost dedication to a single goal.

Morocco’s players have shown that dedication, inspiring people throughout the region. Following the team’s victories, Arab children danced in the streets and fans and players in Qatar were seen waving the Palestinian flag in shows of Arab solidarity. Every winning Arab team made sure that their group picture and public statement included signs and words of solidarity with Palestine.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Bounou, who plays for Sevilla in Spain’s La Liga, has become something of a role model for Arab youths. Tall and agile, his confidence, humility and sense of community make him stand out in a sport whose stars are more often known for displays of swagger and arrogance.

The same vices have held back the Arab world more broadly. While basing a team’s strategy on cohesion might seem like a no-brainer, Arab states usually find this hard to achieve — in sport and in life. True, Algeria’s Taoufik Makhloufi won the 1,500-meter run gold at the 2012 London Olympics, Morocco’s Hicham El-Guerrouj bagged gold medals for the 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter runs in Athens in 2004 and, in 1996, Syria’s Ghada Shouaa won gold at the Atlanta Games heptathlon. But all these athletes won in individual events. When it comes to team sports, Arab countries usually fail miserably.

Similar shortcomings are reflected in business and trade in the region. The Arab League, for example, was created to foster greater unity in the Arab world. But intra-Arab trade still accounts for less than 10 percent of Arab countries’ imports and exports. Family-based small businesses may thrive, but Arab corporations barely make a dent in global commerce. This seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The World Economic Forum estimates that more than 75 percent of the Arab world’s successful companies are family-owned.

While basing a team’s strategy on cohesion might seem like a no-brainer, Arab states usually find this hard to achieve.

Daoud Kuttab

Disunity has serious political consequences as well. The absence of a unified strategy to address famine in Sudan, a country often thought of as the region’s breadbasket, is surely making the situation there worse. Likewise, Palestinians’ internal divisions when it comes to control of their territories has contributed to their failure to achieve the dignity and freedom they so desperately need. In the last Israeli elections, Arab political parties could not agree on a unified slate of candidates for the Knesset, wasting hundreds of thousands of votes as a result. Even citizens of wealthy Arab countries face hunger and literacy problems.

Arab unity based on well-executed and realistic strategies would make a huge difference to the region. And it is here that Morocco’s World Cup should inspire us. Only by applying more broadly the concepts of selflessness and teamwork that have been central to the team’s success can young Arabs and future politicians, who were glued to their TV sets as Morocco made history, translate their shared enthusiasm into real-life unity.

  • Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist, is a former journalism professor at Princeton University and founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.
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