It was a sad week for all Arabs after the four Arab teams competing in the World Cup suffered a succession of defeats that left it virtually impossible for any of them to make it to the second round in this major international sporting competition.
Still, I do not believe that the sentiment is entirely justified. To my knowledge, this is the first time that this number of Arab teams reached the World Cup finals.
Also, only twice did an Arab team make it to the second round: one was Algeria, the other Saudi Arabia. At the same time, I do not recall ever having seen this number of fans in the stalls or such a panoply of Arabic colours, streamers, chants and songs.
But more important was the spectatorship at home: the howls at the defeats, the enthusiastic screams and gasps at exciting moments, the roaring cheers at the goals that rang throughout the Arab world.
Regardless of the sentiment, whether jubilant or depressed, it was not informed solely by national patriotic ardour but also by a sense of pan-Arab affiliation.
In general, the enthusiasm, sorrow or even sarcasm Arab football audiences expressed on social networking media reflected overwhelming frustration at the fact that their high hopes were not realised.
The four Arab countries that made it to the World Cup finals are in the midst of radical economic, social and cultural reform processes.
Such processes inherently raise thresholds of expectations, whether they have to do with higher standards of living, greater opportunities or chances of winning the World Cup.
Often such expectations are excessive and overly impatient. The ability to reach the final rounds of the World Cup, for example, takes generations of experience to produce players and teams with the ability to endure these types of contests.
It is no secret that the World Cup, in essence, is a kind of association or club for European and Latin American nations, some equipped to win, some having already won the cup before.
That four Arab teams — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia — were there, in Russia, while the US, Italy, China and India were not, is the real surprise in this year’s tournament.
In spite of the sad results, the Arab teams’ presence in Russia 2018 was not without rewards. Perhaps the most important was the acquisition of two types of culture.
The first is the sporting culture, the culture of winning fairly, acknowledging defeat and overcoming loss by doubling one’s efforts to prepare for the next round. This applies as much to the World Cup as it does to other athletic tournaments from the Olympics to local games.
The second type of culture has to do with the game itself. In view of its popularity, it may have much to teach people that is applicable not just to other sports but also to the realisation of progress and reform in general. Firstly, football is a game that exalts the rule of law.
The laws of football are enforced by a referee, assistants on the sides and a fourth official to advise, supervise substitutions and check equipment, etc.
Today, video is also used as an arbitrator in instances where ordinary human eyesight is an inadequate judge. This plus the dozens of regulations regarding the dimensions and shape of the field, the shape and size of the goal, the definitions of “corner kicks”, “offside”, “penalties” and the like make up the body of laws known as the rules of the game.
Rules and respecting the rules are indispensable in any serious reform process and in the pursuit of many other activities in life.
Secondly, football is a game that requires outstanding physical fitness and stamina. By the end of the game, players should be as fit and healthy as they were at the beginning so as to be able to score a goal or parry the tactics of the opposing team up to the time the final whistle blows.
In reform processes, we can think of physical fitness in terms of the health of infrastructure, the flexibility of legislative structures organising the marketplace, the availability of the right blend of different types of energy, the financial equilibrium of the state, and balanced growth among the various regions. All such factors are crucial to the process of sustainable development.
Thirdly, “skill” is probably the ingredient that makes football such a pleasure to watch and so popular. In football, skill is about controlling the ball, penetrating the adversary’s lines and keeping the match in the adversary’s side of the pitch.
But much of the skill that is exhibited during the game is the product of the trainer whose task is to make the player not an individual genius out there on his own, but rather part of a collective strategy capable of achieving victory. In developing nations, policies perform the role of strategy, especially when the essential objective is to achieve change rather than to run with the status quo.
This requires not only considerable leadership and organisational skills, but also, and more importantly, the ability to persuade the people that each individual has a role to play in the national drive for progress.
Fourthly, there is the facility of “focus”. This is probably one of the most frequently used terms in football, especially in the World Cup. “Focus” refers to the ability of the player to concentrate everything he has learned, all his training and every ounce of his talent on what it takes to score a goal.
“Focus” is above all a mental process. It means not getting distracted and losing sight of the goal. It requires the ability to control one’s nerves and one’s movements while remaining constantly on the alert for opportunities on the field.
We see similar processes in countries determined to develop and to shape their futures.
Examples are to be found it the Saudi and Egyptian Vision 2030 projects that have laid out a course of action for sustainable development and which have set certain goals on which the two countries must keep their energies trained.
Football is a vast school that teaches people not just how their national teams can become world champions on the field but how their countries can realise progress and win many other types of victories.
The sorrow and disappointment felt by Arab peoples is understandable only insofar as they had wished for something better. But they should bear in mind that the fact that their teams reached Russia this year is not at all bad at this phase.
What counts now is that this time is not an anomaly and that efforts are concentrated on ensuring it is repeated. Repetition is not just a good instructor; in the school of football it creates a culture that promotes the sporting spirit and respect for the general rules of human progress.
This means keeping things in perspective. The greatness of nations is measured not just by their ability to achieve goals in football or in progress, but also and perhaps more importantly by their ability to pick themselves up again.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: Arabs and the World Cup