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Arab football flying high thanks to the Green Falcons and super Salah

Sharpshooter Nawaf Al-Abed will be key to Saudi Arabia’s chances in Russia. (AFP)
Arrogate is looking to get back to winning ways. (AP)
DUBAI: Morocco in 1986. Saudi Arabia in 1994. Algeria in 2014.
Only three Arab teams have ever progressed to the knockout stages of a World Cup, though never as far as the quarterfinals.
It is not surprising. Considering the small number of qualifying spots they must contest with other African and Asian nations, Arab qualifications tend to be rare. And when countries do make it the odds are stacked against them.
Only once has there been more than two Arab nations at a World Cup, when Iraq, Morocco
and Algeria all qualified for Mexico ‘86.
Invariably, these countries will find themselves in pots 3 or 4 for the World Cup draw, meaning almost certain elimination.
But could Russia 2018 be the year that Arab teams finally make a mark on the tournament?
For once, the signs are positive. Already Saudi Arabia and Egypt have confirmed their places among the world’s elite 32.
Things could get better. On Nov. 11, they could be joined by both Morocco and Tunisia, which would bring the total to an unprecedented four Arab countries at the World Cup.
While both require only a draw to reach the finals, Tunisia’s task is considerably easier, as they are set to meet CAF Group A bottom team Libya at home. Even a defeat could still see Henryk Kasperczak’s men through if second place DR Congo fail to beat Guinea. Far more likely at Stade Olympique de Rades are scenes of celebration to rival those at and Borg El-Arab in Alexandria.
Morocco, though top of Group C, must do it the hard way. They travel to second-place Ivory Coast, arguably their toughest assignment of the whole qualifying campaign. A defeat there means a summer at home for the team currently coached by Frenchman Hervé Renard.
Egypt Returns
Incredibly, despite possessing a rich footballing history and their habitual success in the African Cup of Nations, Egypt have only qualified for the World Cup twice before: In 1934, when they became the first Arab team to reach the finals; and in 1990, under the guidance of the great Mahmoud El-Gohary.
Continental glory in 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010 did not translate to World Cup qualification, meaning the world missed out on witnessing one of Africa’s greatest talents, Mohammed Aboutrika, on the grandest stage.
Now, after several years of turmoil for the national team and disruption to the domestic team, Egyptian football is approaching something like rude health again, and they can approach Russia 2018 with genuine optimism.
And perhaps for the first time ever, Egypt now have a bona fide superstar playing for one of the world’s most famous clubs. Mohamed Salah has started his career at Liverpool in stunning form and has gone up a gear from his time at Chelsea and Roma.
Unlike 28 years ago, audiences outside of Africa will be familiar with many of the squad members. Mohamed Elneny at Arsenal and Ahmed Hegazi at West Brom are just two players fans not familiar with Egyptian football will have heard of thanks to the ubiquity of the Premier League.
Their experience, along with that of those who play at home and across the Arab world, means Egypt will have no inferiority complex going into the World Cup.
Saudi Positivity
Positive vibes are also coursing through Saudi Arabian football. On Nov. 18, Al-Hilal will contest the first leg of the AFC Champions League final against Urawa Reds at home, with the second-leg a week later at Saitama Stadium.
A record third title for Al-Hilal will be a major boost for the country as they prepare for the World Cup, especially as no fewer than 10 players from the club are members of the Saudi national squad.
In comparison to Egypt, however, the Green Falcons, with the exception of teenager Mukhtar Ali at Vitesse, have no squad member playing outside the Kingdom, never mind in some of Europe’s top leagues.
But that could be about to change. It was revealed two weeks ago that Saudi World Cup squad members are being lined up for loan spells at European clubs during the upcoming winter transfer window. Whether five months will be enough to have any genuine impact on these players ahead of the World Cup remains to be seen, but many see it as merely a start of a long-term project that will ultimately reap
Any success, however belated, will be welcome if it increases belief that Saudi Arabian players are at home playing at the highest level. 
Should Tunisia and Morocco join the party next month, the chances of an Arab team progressing to the round of 16 in the World Cup for only the fourth time will, quite literally, double.
There could never be a better time for Arab nations to finally make history at the World Cup.