Exactly one year before the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off, football fans from across the Arab world can savor the atmosphere of international tournaments when the newly introduced FIFA Arab Cup takes place in Qatar between Nov. 27 and Dec. 18 this year.
That journey started on Saturday as Sudan and Libya met in Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium in the first of seven play-off matches where the 14 lowest ranked national teams in the region compete for a place in the finals. They will join the nine sides that have already qualified for the 16-team tournament in Qatar.
In the coming week the Qatari capital will host one game a day as Oman play Somalia, Jordan faces South Sudan, Mauritania takes on Yemen, Lebanon play Djibouti, Palestine go against Comoros and Gulf neighbors Kuwait and Bahrain lock horns in the final qualifying play-off on Friday.
On Saturday, attendance was limited to 30 percent capacity, with only vaccinated fans allowed entry, but the presence of several thousands of fans at Khalifa Stadium offered a glimpse of what to expect this winter. The crowd on Saturday predominantly belonged to Sudan, home to an estimated 60,000 expats in Qatar, but there was a small, vocal Libyan presence too.
On the pitch, Sudan showed its attacking intent from the start. Coach Hubert Velud’s men came racing out of the block, applying a high press system to retrieve the ball deep in their opponents’ half and creating chances almost at will. Their approach paid dividends at the quarter-hour mark when Saif Eldin Malik reacted fastest to reach a loose ball inside the Libyan box, drawing a foul from youngster Tahir bin Amir. Talisman Mohammed Abdelrahman stepped up confidently and converted from the spot, sending goalkeeper Mohammed Nashnush the wrong way.
Libya looked every bit a team still in search of a new playing identity in what was the first match in charge for coach Javier Clemente. The veteran Spaniard has returned for a second spell, having guided the Mediterranean Knights to African Nations Championship glory in 2014. Faisal Al-Badri tested the Sudanese goalkeeper from 30 yards out and Kuwait-based Ammar Al-Sanousi’s misconnecting volley was the only other big chance for the Libyans before the break.
Cautious not to allow their opponent space to run into, Sudan looked to hold on to its one-goal advantage with a slow passing game after the restart but this nearly backfired on the 57-minute mark as Libya’s Mohammed Zubya rose unopposed to power a header that goalkeeper Ali Abu Eshreen managed to keep out.
Abu Eshreen, who had been instrumental in Sudan’s successful African Cup of Nations qualification campaign, once more demonstrated his quality to deny Muad Eisay. The Libyan substitute outmuscled his marker and had the goal at his mercy but could not get past the Sudanese goalkeeper.
Romanian-born Yasin Hamed came off the bench for Sudan midway through the second half, replacing Malik, and he looked lively, with a curled effort that passed agonizingly wide of the upright. The 21-year-old is growing into an influential member of the Sudan squad, having switched allegiances from Romania to his father’s home country in 2019.
Any notion of the Arab Cup being a redundant friendly tournament was dispelled by the scenes at the final whistle with emotions running high as the Sudanese players celebrated in front of their large following. There were even tears on the other side with this result coming on the back of Libya’s failure to reach the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon.
Sudan had booked its place in Cameroon three months earlier, and now Abdelrahman’s goal sealed qualification to the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup. It will serve as perfect preparation for the Falcons of Jediane ahead of their return to the African competition they won in 1970.
Sudan face North African powerhouses Algeria and Egypt in Group D of the Arab Cup in Doha, while the fourth spot in the group will be contested on Wednesday between Lebanon and Djibouti.
“The Falcons of Jediane once more taught us that our strength lies in our unity,” tweeted Sudan Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok after the match, congratulating the team and hailing the support of the Sudanese community in Qatar.
In the upcoming Arab Cup fans across the region will be immersed in such hype in a competition that taps into a pan-Arab identity and is being presented as an official FIFA tournament for the very first time.