After the first two games in the group stage, most of the seven African and Arab countries in the 2022 Qatar World Cup are pulling their weight.
As of writing, only one, Qatar, is definitely out of the tournament. The chances of the rest stood from weak to promising. Of course, like all group tournaments, the final outcome relies on not just the success of teams but on the success or failure of others.
Before it goes to print, Al-Ahram Weekly will be unable to catch the third and final group stage games that will ultimately decide who goes and who stays in Qatar. However, the end of stage two shows how some teams have put themselves in a position to possibly grab that prized round of 16 brass ring.
Morocco finished the second round with the best record of the African and Arab pack: four points from a draw and a win.
Hosts Qatar did not do nearly as well, bundled out of their own tournament after just two games, giving them the unwanted distinction of being only the second host country after South Africa in 2010 not to advance from the group stage (although South Africa did manage to collect four points before bowing out).
Senegal, with three points after their first two matches, came into the tournament billed as having the strongest African team in World Cup history and the continental country most likely to make it to the semi-finals where no African or Arab country has ever ventured.
That Senegal are the best-ever World Cup African country is fraught with debate. Tunisia 1978, Algeria 1982 and Morocco 1986 are worthy contenders, if not more. What cannot be argued with is history: Senegal did make it to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup, as did Cameroon in 1990 and Ghana in 2010.
But Senegal received a big blow to their aspirations shortly before the Qatar tournament began when their star Bayern striker Sadio Mane was ruled out because of injury.
The football public might not have been paying too much attention to Cameroon and Ghana, two former heavyweights of African football, but what was missed were two gritty exhibitions.
Starting in Group A, three-time World Cup finalists the Netherlands returned to the biggest international stage after an eight-year absence, beating Senegal 2-0 with late goals from Cody Gakpo and substitute Davy Klaassen.
Senegal then blasted hosts Qatar 3-1 in the same group, making it only the second time the host country of a World Cup had failed to advance from the group stage. Qatar, with no points from two games, had been eliminated from their own party just two games into the World Cup after the defeat in Al Thumama Stadium.
Boulaye Dia (41) and Famara Diedhiou (48) struck either side of half-time to put Senegal ahead.
Mohamed Muntari pulled one back (78) with a historic first goal at a World Cup finals for Qatar, but the hosts’ unlikely comeback lasted just six minutes as Ahmadou Dieng restored Senegal’s two-goal lead (84).
In the Qatar-Ecuador World Cup opener, the game was all but over at halftime, with Ecuador comfortably 2-0 up thanks to two goals by Enner Valencia.
The game in Group A will probably be most remembered for Qatari fans leaving a lot of noticeably empty seats in the second half.
In Group C, Saudi Arabia produced one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, defeating competition favourites Argentina 2-1.
Lionel Messi had opened the scoring just 10 minutes in with a calmly taken penalty, while Argentina put the ball in the net three more times before the half time whistle — with every one being ruled out for off-side. That profligate cost Argentina dearly when Saleh Al-Shehri latched onto a long ball and lashed a left-foot shot into the far corner of Emi Martinez’ goal. Just five minutes later, Salem Al-Dawsari scored one of the goals of the tournament to launch the Saudis to an astonishing win.
Saudi Arabia would in the second game come back down to earth with a thud, losing to Poland 2-0. Robert Lewandowski scored his first World Cup goal. Piotr Zielinski had given the Poles a first-half lead and Wojciech Szczesny’s superb double save from a penalty just before half-time helped send Poland top of Group C.
In Group D, Tunisia had one point from two games. They started off with a goalless draw against fancied Denmark, Both sides created chances but favourites Denmark were surprised by a well-organised Tunisia side who defended well and posed a threat on the counter at times.
Tunisia should have been able to add to their points tally against Australia, a team of similar stature. But breakout star Craig Goodwin who scored the sole goal against France, provided the assist for Mitch Duke’s match-winning goal in a 1-0 win over Tunisia.
It is in Group F where Morocco are making Africans and Arabs proud. They were able to hold Croatia, the 2018 finalists, at bay 0-0. Then they pulled off an extraordinary 2-0 win over Belgium, the No 2 in the world.
Against Belgium, Abdel-Hamid Sabiri bamboozled Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois whose positioning was awkward, connecting on the tournament’s first goal from a free kick to give Morocco a 1-0 lead in the second half before assisting on its second goal of the match. Morocco’s win led to clashes that night in Brussels which has a large North African immigrant community.
Cameroon and Ghana did not, after two rounds, have as many points as Morocco but played in two of the most sensational games in Qatar to date. After stage two, Cameroon had one point and Ghana three.
In Group G, Cameroon’s substitute Vincent Aboubakar was the inspiration for a superb lob and a breathtaking comeback in a 3-3 draw with Serbia in Al-Wakrah. Cameroon battled back from two goals down to draw in this six-goal thriller.
In match No 1, Switzerland had edged Cameroon 1-0 courtesy of a goal against the run of play by Breel Embolo who was playing against the country of his birth.
Ghana won a thrilling see-saw match against South Korea 3-2. In Group H, Mohamed Kudus was the hero with two goals, with Mohamed Salisu also on the scoresheet for the Black Stars. South Korea had battled back from 2-0 down to draw level at 2-2. But Kudus had the presence of mind to have the final say with an assured left-footed finish to give Ghana a vital three points and condemn South Korea to the bottom of the group.
In the first game for both Portugal and Ghana, Cristiano Ronaldo became the first man to score at five World Cups and did so at Ghana’s expense.
The 37-year-old scored the opening goal from the penalty spot, hammering in after being tripped in the box by Ghana’s Southampton defender Mohamed Salisu.
The Ghanaians improved in the second period, rewarded when Andre Ayew equalised from close range.
But Portugal responded with two goals in two minutes. Osman Bukari headed in a late consolation for Ghana to win it 3-2. However, Ghana could have tied it in the ninth minute of stoppage time in bizarre fashion. Goalkeeper Diogo Costa laid the ball on the grass and was preparing to kick it, unaware that Inaki Williams was right behind him. Williams intercepted the ball but slipped at the worst possible time as his weak shot was cleared off the line.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.