Every four years the world at large holds its breath before the World Cup, an international sports event that keeps humanity — at home, in public squares, in cafes, on beaches and in restaurants — glued to large and small TV screens to watch, for a month, selected soccer teams from the four corners of the world compete to hold the much-coveted golden trophy. The winner holds the title for four years, until the next Mundial.
We are in the midst of World Cup 2018, in which four Arab teams qualified to participate; namely, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco. Arabs everywhere were elated that four Arab teams had qualified.
In Egypt, in particular, media mobilisation was exceptional. On the other hand, coverage was such that the World Cup turned into something akin to the drums of war and not a sports event.
It goes without saying that the participation of Liverpool player Mohamed Salah in the Egyptian national team was of particular interest to the Egyptian media, and all Egyptians for that matter.
In sum, Egyptians went to the World Cup with high hopes. Unfortunately, the four teams were eliminated without any of them scoring a win. Not even a draw, to the regret of all of us.
Expectedly, mass popular disappointment has been very deep, hurting the national pride of the four Arab countries concerned. It shouldn’t. When we were kids we learned that in sports, “may the best men win.” Professional standards in sports have nothing to do with personal or national backgrounds. In sports, coming on top or performing honourably should not be taken for granted. It is very hard work.
Immediately after the successive defeats and disqualification from the World Cup, the blame game began in earnest in Egypt. The media contributed significantly to this, as well as social media.
No one from the Egyptian Football Association was spared; nor almost anyone related to the national team, including Hector Cuper, the Argentinian coach who should have been thanked, despite the poor and disappointing results, for preparing the national team to qualify and play in the World Cup after a 20-year absence.
The results of the Arab teams are very disappointing. We would have hoped that at least one Arab team, not necessarily the Egyptian National Team, reach the quarterfinals, and why not the semi-finals, but it did not come to pass.
Now is the time to ask pertinent questions of why these four Arab teams performed so poorly, and to prepare the grounds for the next World Cup that will be held — for the first time since the World Cup was launched in 1930 in Uruguay — in an Arab country, Qatar.
No one can predict, so early, which Arab soccer teams will qualify to participate Qatar 2022; however, one would hope that Arab countries would become one, then, and show solidarity, at least in an exceptional sports event like the World Cup, in honour of the fact that it will be held in an Arab country, and regardless of present time political relations with the host country.
We hope that the countries that cut diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017 — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — would agree on their resumption before the inauguration of the 2022 World Cup.
When the four Arab national soccer teams fly back from Russia to their respective countries they should be welcomed properly and in a dignified manner.
Their return should be a rare occasion to ask the difficult question as to why the performance was so diametrically opposed to the great expectations that had been raised on their way to Russia.
And to do some soul searching by everyone across the Arab world, from politicians to laymen to intellectuals and to media folks, why the Arab world, represented by these four teams, did not perform the way we had aspired to.
Was it because, in sports like in any other activity, we still lag behind in human progress, be it politics, in governance, and all other economic, political and social indicators, and mainly in transparency in everything we do?
For the gulf between our political, economic, social and cultural reality and human progress is quite deep. I don’t know whether this soul searching will take place or not, but it is a must if we look forward, not only performing on equal par with the most professional national teams that will qualify for Qatar 2022, but also to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of human progress. And this applies to Egypt, in particular.
Sports is a mirror that does not lie. And may the best men win.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly with headline: May the best men win