The inaugural 2021 FIFA Arab Cup, taking place in Qatar from 30 November to 18 December, is a 16-team tournament billed as a prelude to the 2022 World Cup which will also be held in Qatar. There are two originals here: the first time a World Cup is played in an Arab country. And the Arab Cup, being played almost exactly a year before the World Cup, is being sponsored by FIFA, world football’s governing body, for the first time.
Consequently, the FIFA Arab Cup will be monitored very closely by FIFA and the Qataris because it is a good opportunity to test facilities ahead of the global finals. All the matches are taking place in Doha, with six World Cup stadiums used. Some of the venues have already hosted high-level football in recent months, while the others are in the final stages of construction.
At stake is outrageous prize money: $5 million to the winner, $3 million for the runner-up, $2 million for third place, $1.5 million for fourth and $1 million for the quarter-finalists. Up for grabs, too, is a gleaming trophy with a solid gold base, featuring Arabic calligraphy and a map of the Arab world.
But the Arab Cup might not garner the full attention of the Arab audience. It will be only the 10th time the Arab countries hold a football championship for their national teams since 1963 when the first such tournament was held in Lebanon and won by Tunisia.
Only 10 tournaments in 58 years – including a stretch of almost 20 vacant years - says much about the often strained relations - many times behind closed doors, sometimes out in the open - among Arab countries. The often fractured nature of the Arab world has ensured that a sports contest made just for Arabs is a highly irregular affair, hostage to their factitiousness. Which is why this edition of the Arab Cup might not spur too much interest in this part of the world, despite being organised officially by FIFA.
The tournament will also lose much of its lustre because no foreign-based players will be able to participate, unless they play in other Arab leagues, since the competition doesn’t coincide with FIFA’s normal international break schedule. European clubs will not need to let go of their players as they do for other championships.
So the likes of Egypt’s Europe-based players Mohamed Salah, Mohamed Al-Nenni and Mustafa Mohamed will not take part in the competition.
Furthermore, more than one country has said it will not be sending its first team to Qatar but would instead be represented by a junior or Olympic-type squad.
Nevertheless, the FIFA Arab Cup is a championship worth playing and watching, as some of its participating teams who might be going to the World Cup can use it as a dress rehearsal. The tournament is taking the place of the defunct FIFA Confederations Cup which used to be held every four years in the country that would host the World Cup the following year, acting as a test event for the larger tournament. Thus, the Arab Cup is one of the few remaining ways to fine-tune World Cup-bound teams.
Also, Egypt can use the Arab Cup, which it won once, as a warm-up for the Africa Nations Cup scheduled for January in Cameroon. Egypt has won this tournament a record seven times.
Certain not to disappoint of the four groups in Qatar will be Group D where Egypt was drawn alongside arch-rivals Algeria, Lebanon and Sudan. The Pharaohs’ first game takes place on 1 December against the Asian country before facing Sudan three days later, and concluding against Algeria on 7 December.
This section is arguably the toughest of all, featuring as it does an Algeria team unbeaten in their last 27 internationals, as well as Russia 2018 participant Egypt.
Egypt versus Algeria have produced historically epic battles. Egypt defeated Algeria 1-0 to go to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and repeated the same result to enter the 1990 World Cup. Algeria turned the tables when it edged Egypt 1-0 in neutral Sudan to make it to the 2010 World Cup in a game made notorious for marauding Algerian fans descending upon Egyptians fleeing in the streets of Omdurman. The Egyptians gained revenge somewhat with a 4-0 drubbing of Algeria en route to capturing the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. Not to be outdone, Algeria goes to Qatar as the defending African champions.
Facing the North African duo will be Lebanon which showed its offensive capabilities against Djibouti and recently made the final round of Asian qualifying for Qatar 2022, and Sudan. Led by coach Hubert Velud, the Falcons of Jeddiane recently qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations after a long absence at the expense of a strong South Africa team.
In the group stage, there will be four groups of four teams in a round-robin format, with the top two teams from each group qualifying to the knockout stage which will consist of the quarter-finals, semi-finals, a play-off for third place and the final.
Egypt’s Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz, fresh from reaching the final play-off games for next year’s World Cup, has named his 23-man squad set to travel to Qatar.
Queiroz has called up a fully locally-based squad for the tournament, surprisingly leaving out usual Zamalek midfield stalwart Tarek Hamed and teammate goalkeeper Mohamed Abou-Gabal.
Mahmoud Alaa, Yasser Ibrahim and Baher Al-Mohamadi were all also bypassed while all the Masry and Pyramids FC players were excluded as both teams will compete in the playoff rounds of the CAF Confederation Cup.
Five new names have earned their inaugural call-ups, including Ahly loanee at Future FC Mohamed Abdel-Moneim as well as his teammate Omar Kamal who is on loan from Zamalek.
Another Zamalek loanee is Osama Faisal was called up alongside Smouha’s Hussein Faisal and Marwan Dawoud of Enppi.
The usual faces, including Mohamed Al-Shennawi, Ayman Ashraf, Ahmed Fattouh, Al-Wensh, Akram Tawfik, Amr Al-Suleya, Hamdi Fathi, Afsha and Mohamed Sherif are all on the list.
Pyramids FC playmakers Abdullah Al-Said and Ramadan Sobhi, and Ahly winger Hussein Al-Shahat were also given the thumbs down.
Whoever wins the FIFA Arab Cup, if it were designed to partially rehabilitate ties between some nations, it would have done its job. Not too long ago it would have been inconceivable to imagine that Qatar would play host to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan following the 2017 crisis when these countries severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and banned Qatar-registered planes and ships from utilising their airspace and sea routes, citing Qatar’s support for terrorism.
Four years later, the two sides have largely made peace and their relations will be further cemented by way of football.
Egypt’s 23-man squad in Qatar
Goalkeepers: Mohamed Al-Shennawi (Ahly), Mahmoud Gad (Enppi), Mohamed Sobhi (Farco).
Defenders: Ahmed Fattouh (Zamalek), Mohamed Abdel-Moneim (Future FC), Ahmed Yassin (NBE club), Mahmoud Al-Wensh Hamdi (Zamalek), Ayman Ashraf (Ahly), Akram Tawfik (Ahly), Marwan Dawoud (Enppi).
Midfielders: Hamdi Fathi (Ahly), Amr Al-Suleya (Ahly), Mohanad Lasheen (Talae Al-Geish), Emam Ashour (Zamalek), Mohamed Magdi Afsha (Ahly), Mustafa Fathi (Zamalek), Ahmed Sayed Zizo (Zamalek), Ahmed Refaat (Masry), Omar Kamal (Future FC).
Strikers: Mohamed Sherif (Ahly), Marwan Hamdi (Smouha), Osama Faisal (NBE), Hussein Faisal (Smouha).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.