It was not pan-Arabism – the idea that all Arabs should unite to form one country – but the recently concluded FIFA Arab Cup looked congenial enough.
Algeria won this maiden tournament with a 2-0 extra time win against Tunisia on Saturday, making it not only the defending African champion but the new victor of the Arab world.
The real excitement, though, was in the two semi-finals. Tunisia scored with almost the last touch of the game with Egypt – an own goal at that, by captain Amr Solaiya, no less - that had looked to be heading inexorably towards extra time.
If that wasn’t worth a sudden heart attack, Algeria looked to be heading for a 1-0 win until Qatar’s Mohammed Muntari popped up in the 97th minute to send home a thundering headed equaliser. But Algeria’s Mohamed Youcef Belaïli notched the winner on the rebound after his initial penalty had been saved.
The action was extended beyond breaking point, actually beyond belief. Belaili’s winner was scored in the 107th minute. Note: this game did not go into extra time; delays and a lengthy VAR check made it seem so.
At any rate, the two semi-finals set a bar that was a tad too high for the final.
Algeria aside, Qatar came out a big winner as well. Qatar will be the first Arab country to host a World Cup and the Arab Cup allowed it to test itself when the greatest show on earth kicks off on 21 November, less than year away.
In the Arab Cup’s 19 days, Qatar hosted 16 countries playing 32 matches across six stadiums, all World Cup venues, introducing Fan IDs and a local contract-tracing application.
Qatar will need all the know-how it accrued from the Arab Cup to apply it the World Cup, which is a much larger 32-country affair, over 28 days.
Qatar also scored a priceless political goal. It was not too long ago that the Arab Cup could have been drastically reduced in size or not played at all. In 2017, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan, all of whom played in the Arab Cup, 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 and accusing Doha of interfering in their internal affairs. Qatar vehemently denied both charges.
Four years later, the two sides have largely made peace. The Arab Cup did not mend their relations but further cemented them.
In a sign of the new times, Egypt’s Cairo Tower lit up in maroon to celebrate Qatar’s National Day on Saturday 18 December, coincidentally the exact same day that Qatar beat Egypt in the Arab Cup for third place.
In any event, FIFA President Gianni Infantino seemed so enthralled with the Arab Cup, in which he attended several games, that he confirmed right after its conclusion that the tournament was here to stay.
Although Infantino didn’t say when the next time would be, he said the cup will continue “with the best players playing in this competition”, suggesting that European clubs might in future release their star Arab players, including Egypt’s Mohamed Salah and Riyad Mahrez of Algeria, something they did not do this time because the competition did not coincide with FIFA’s normal international break schedule.
Infantino will also propose that Arabic becomes an official language of FIFA. Currently, the four FIFA languages are English, French, German and Spanish.
It seems an innocuous and only normal recommendation that the Arabic alphabet enters FIFA’s lexicon. Arabic is spoken by 450 million people who live in more than 20 Arabic-speaking countries. But one would have the right to ask where is this heading, and who is heading it? Infantino is a man of big ideas, and he’s not afraid to express them out loud. He wants the World Cup to be held once every two years instead of four, despite stiff opposition from the Premier League and UEFA, world football’s most powerful blocs.
In 2026, the World Cup will for the first time include 48 teams, expanded from 32. And it will be held jointly by three countries - Mexico, the US and Canada - another first. Not all have embraced this new format, but that’s the way it will be.
On FIFA’s official webpage, Infantino is characterized as seeking “to expand football’s global participation, and for football to be accessible to everyone”. So, today it’s the Arab Cup. The day after, there might be The Francophone Cup, then The Muslim Cup, and, how about The Heavy Brooklyn Accent Cup? Everybody, ethnic and not, will want a cup they can call their own.
Infantino, at 51, is known not only for imagining grand schemes but making them come true. But in his quest to get as many people on board, as he seeks re-election in 2023, he is walking on a slippery slope. How much are you willing to promise your constituents? How far should you go? Or should you go at all?
Without doubt, Infantino would like to take some credit for bringing Arabs together under the umbrella of the Arab Cup. In that respect, he deserves applause (although Arab countries have previously staged football tournaments, this was the first mandated by FIFA).
But apparently not everybody was in the pan-Arab mood.
When Algeria’s Belaili netted the winner against Qatar in the semi-final, in response, Qatari club Qatar SC terminated his contract.
Some Arab attitudes never change.