The Arab World Holds its Breath for the FIFA World Cup: Russia 2018

09.05.2018 Author: Martin Berger

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The Arab world where soccer over the decades has grown into one of the most popular sports attractions, is anticipating with excitement the opening of the FIFA World Cup: Russia 2018, which will be played from from 14 June–15 July 2018.

The history of the participation of Arab soccer national teams in the World Cups began in 1930, when a total of four teams took part in the competition.

The Arabs received recognition in the World Cup of 1934, with the Egyptian national team showing excellent sportsmanship, but then they had to wait almost four decades before the Moroccan national team take part in the event in 1970.

Since 1978, the participation of Arab countries in the World Cup continued and ever since that year at least Arab team always makes it to the higher bracket.

Of all the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia would take part in the World Cup most often, with each of the national teams taking part in the World Cup five times.

And soon enough, we won’t just see Saudi Green Falcons, but Egypt’s The Pharaohs, Moroccan Lions of the Atlas and Tunisian The Eagles of Carthage coming to compete on the World Cup in Russia.

For its first match the Saudi national team will face the Russian one. This will be the opening match of the 2018 World Cup, the first official meeting of the two teams and the second in history. The Green Falcons will be the first Arab team to take part in the championship, which, according to numerous Arab commentators, will attract the attention of millions of viewers across the Muslim world and the rest of the planet, attracting even those viewers who are not generally fond of soccer. The Greens Falcons have already faced the “Russian Bear” on the soccer field back in October 6, 1993 in a friendly match, which ended with a score of 4:2 in favor of Saudi Arabia, so there’s no doubt that they will except to secure a victory in their opening match in Moscow.

But the first match of the 21st World Cup, in which Russia and Saudi Arabia will face each other, is not just being anticipated by soccer fans across the globe, but also by experts in international relations.

As it’s already been noted by the French observers, the match is to be perceived in the context of strengthening ties between the two nations, which would have been confronted each other since Riyadh has always been aligned with Washington, while Moscow has time and time again refused to abandon its support of Tehran. The states usually choose to differ in opinions in oil trade, while Russia has been suspecting Saudi Arabia of financing the Chechen insurgency and sponsoring of radical Islamist movements. The coming to power of Vladimir Putin triggered drastic changes in the diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, in early October, King Salman visited Moscow on his maiden official visit. This event became a symbol of the changing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, even though Saudi Arabia would remain a traditional ally of the United States. Yet, it’s safe to say that it’s eager to explore all of its option, while Russia and Iran stand united in Syria.

An excessive amount of interest across the Arab world to the opening of the FIFA World Cup: Russia 2018 can be sensed both in the number of tickets already booked and by a fact that a world famous Moroccan traveler Muhammad al-Hamdoun announced his idea to travel from Morocco to Russia on foot to honor this event. These plans, in particular, the traveler shared in a video on social networks, where he announced a decision to walk thousands of miles from Morocco to Russia to support the Moroccan national football team at the final stages of the World Cup in 2018, while promoting the positive image of Morocco in the world.

To enjoy the World Cup matches in person, one has to book tickets early. According to FIFA, the upcoming World Cup 2018 outperformed the previous one, with available tickets selling so exceptionally well that those wanting to book them unintentionally brought the FIFA website down. The cheapest ticket for non-Russian residents will cost a soccer fan no less than 280 dollars.

Despite the fact that the organizers divide the zones for Russian and foreign fans to avoid conflicts, they will get the same experience, but the prices for Russian fans are much lower than for foreign visitors.

After buying tickets, one has to obtain an entry permit. One of the initial goals of Russia’s bid for the championship is to stimulate the development of tourism in this country and attract more people. During last year’s Confederations Cup, Russia presented a historic innovation – a Fan ID, which can be obtained simply by purchasing a ticket for the matches. With the help of this document one can enjoy local rail and public transport for free, while getting a massive discount on plane tickets. The most important thing is that Fan ID allows you to enter the territory of Russia without a entry permit, while using your passport to prove your identity.

It curious that Russia made no half-measures in addressing the transportation challenges as the Russian state-run company Aeroflot showed the world something completely new: plane tickets for Russian fans that are being sold at a price of ten cents! So do not be surprised when already in a great many countries of the world when they hear the name they start asking: Isn’t it the company that sells plane tickets for ten cents?

Yes, that’s exactly how much Russian fans will pay to buy tickets to those cities when the matches of the Russian national team will be held and then go back for the same fee. However, this discount does only apply to those matches played by the Russian national team. When this decision was announced all of the hot lines run by Aeroflot started resembling exactly what the name implies.

Yet, it has recently become a new norm for the Western Russophobic media to try to taint anything Russia-related. Unsurprisingly, the British BBC and the German magazine Der Spiegel, would be pretty sarcastic in a bid to convince their readers that no one but Russians would choose the flights run by Aeroflot. However, these “warnings” produced the opposite result: as a great many of non-Russian nationals starting calling Aeroflot, demanding whether they are going to get the ten cents tickets, if they are to support the Russian national team.

On the eve of the FIFA World Cup: Russia 2018, various Arab commentators in their publications would emphasize the fact that Islam is the second most widely practiced religion in Russia after Orthodoxy. As a matter of fact this largest country on the face of this planet is a home to some 20 million Muslims, which constitutes 15% of Russia’s total population. The overwhelming majority of Russian Muslims are Sunnis, while there’s a 10% Shia community.

And, of course, a significant number of Arab commentators on the eve of the major sports event spare no words in describing the beautiful Russian girls that Arab fans will meet both on the Aeroflot flights as stewardesses, but also in the capacity of volunteers in the streets of those Russian cities where soccer matches are going to be held.

Summarizing all of the above, one can safely state that all of the Arabs who are going to attend the FIFA World Cup: Russia 2018 will not just be able to support their national teams, but will get a chance of getting acquainted with the multifaceted Russian society that everybody is talking about. The society that spares no effort in protecting the peace and security across the Arab world.

Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”