While Egypt was the first Middle Eastern country to qualify for the World Cup Finals, which they did in 1934, the second ever tournament, Algeria have a stronger case for being regarded as the most successful nation from the region at the world`s premier international football tournament.
Ironically Egypt’s two appearances in the finals were both in Italy for, after playing in the 1934 tournament and losing their only game 4-2 to Hungary, the country also qualified for Italia 90.
Egypt can also shout loudly that they were the first Middle Eastern country to break into the FIFA Top Ten World rankings, which they did when claiming ninth place, in 2010.
Followers of Saudi Arabia may also contest the labelling of Algeria as the most successful nation from the Middle East at World Cup finals, not withstanding the geographical question which is very much a bone of contention when this particular question of pre-eminence is discussed.
The Saudi national team qualified for four consecutive World Cup finals; 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006. Indeed it was their debut tournament which produced their best ever showing. In the opening game in the United States not only did Saudi Arabia beat seeded Belgium but they did so with a goal that is regarded as one of the greatest ever goals scored on the international stage.
Saudi player Saaed Al-Owairan ran from his own half, fully 70 yards in the 104 degrees that suffocated Washington`s RFK Stadium that day. He bamboozled a posse of Belgian opponents before lifting the ball over Michel Preudhomme, the Belgian keeper, to score the only goal of the game and earn himself immortality. The win took Saudi Arabia into the last 16, where they lost 3-1 to Sweden. It was a feat they have never matched, and a goal that saw Saaed, briefly, hailed as the Maradona of the Arabs. It also earned him a luxury car, courtesy of King Fahd, when he returned home to Riyadh.
Thrust into the world limelight Al-Owairan was unable to capitalise on his new found fame as a national law prevented Saudi footballers playing abroad. Two years later he was caught socializing and drinking with women during Ramadan and sent to prison as well as being suspended from football for a year.
Although Saudi Arabia qualified for the three finals after 1994 they fell at the first hurdle on each occasion; in France, 1998, South Korea/Japan, 2002, and Germany in 2006.
Algeria matched the Saudi achievement of reaching four World Cup finals tournaments but unlike their Arab counterparts they were not consecutive. But in their debut tournament, in 1982 in Spain, Algeria pulled off one of the greatest shocks in tournament history. A 2-1 win in opening game against reigning European Champions West Germany not only shocked the Germans and world football but also led to perhaps the most, disgraceful episode in FIFA history.
For the record it was the first time an African team defeated a European nation at a World Cup finals. Before the game it was reported that one German player, unnamed, boasted that he would play against Algeria` with a cigar in my mouth`.
There was to be no cigar for West Germany. Had they prepared properly they would have realised they were facing a fluent, dynamic team that had played together for years and were all home based, due to Algerian law which prevented players from leaving the country until the age of 28.
Algeria went 1-0 up in the 54th minute through Rabah Madjer. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge equalised 13 minutes later but that only spurred Algeria on. From the restart they strung together a nine-pass move that ended with Belloumi netting, unmarked, from close range what proved the decisive goal.
If the result was astonishing the aftermath goes down as perhaps the darkest day in FIFA history, thus far.
Although Algeria then lost to Austria subsequent victory over Chile put the minnows in touching distance of qualification but that game was played the day before the deciding game, the final group fixture between Austria and West Germany. A West German win by one or two goals would qualify both European nations while a greater German win would ensure progress for them and Algeria. A draw or an Austrian victory would eliminate West Germany.
The Germans scored first, after 10 minutes. The following eighty minutes made a mockery of football in particular and sport in general as it was no more than passing practice by two top international football nations. The locals jeered `out, out` at flagrant deviousness. Even the German and Austrian fans deplored the most blatant match fixing ever known.
Algeria protested to FIFA who determined the result would stand although they revised the rules to ensure the last games in a group would thereafter be played simultaneously. Algeria qualified again in 1986 but failed to progress beyond the first round and they were absent from the finals until 2010 when they finished bottom of their group in South Africa. They did however qualify for Brazil in 2014 when Algeria became the first team from Africa to score four goals in a finals game, in beating South Korea 4-2.
Although Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Algeria are the most successful Middle Eastern nations in World Cup finals honourable mentions must be made of others.
Iran ranked first in Asia and 51st in the world rankings as of Dec 2014 have, like several other nations from the region, qualified for four World Cup finals tournaments but as yet have not progressed beyond the group stage. And, as if determined by football irony, the country`s only victory in a finals was the 2-1 victory over the United States, in 1998. Iran`s first World Cup point came from a 1-1 draw with Scotland in their debut match in Argentina in 1978.
Iraq although being one of the most powerful teams in Asia has only qualified once for the World Cup finals. That was in 1986 when they lost all three group games scoring just a single goal, in the 2-1 defeat to Belgium.
And what about tiny Bahrain? They came within a whisker of reaching the 2006 World Cup, within one goal of beating Trinidad and Tobago in a play off
There is little doubt that the Middle East`s best teams are making progress but they are still some way from making a greater impact when it comes to quarter and semi-final stages.
Article by Brian Beard