For a long time, Arabs have suffered from a chronic disease - disunity.
United in language and culture and geography, Arabs have not been able to muster anything close to a united front in any meaningful way. In the absence of unity, the region was a victim of colonialism, and its wealth and resources were plundered. Individualism and selfishness prevented Arabs from leveraging their strategic geography and huge oil wealth and relatively educated population. Foreign colonialists applied divide-and-rule tactics to ensure their continued reign over the region.
But this week these failures appear to be replaced by victories. A small Arab country, Qatar, succeeded in executing a world-class World Cup. Saudi Arabia beat the leading contender Argentina in the first round of the games, as did Morocco against Belgium and Tunisia against France.
In the second round, Morocco continued to defy skeptics by overcoming Spain, a powerful European team favored to win the World Cup. The Moroccan upset was a perfectly executed plan by coach Walid Regragui that centered around star goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.
For 120 minutes, Bounou kept Spain goalless and in the penalty shootout stopped two Spanish penalty kicks to help his team advance to play against Portugal for a spot in the semifinals. No Arab team has ever reached the group of eight at the World Cup. Morocco then became the first Arab team to reach the World Cup semifinals, after defeating Portugal, which had been favored to win the entire tournament.
Goalkeeper Bounou, who plays during the year for the Spanish Seville team, will emerge as a role model for Arab youth. Tall and agile, his smile never left his face and his confidence in his teammates is much different than other stars who appear selfish and arrogant.
Rooting for the underdog
The Moroccan team knew they were the underdog in the knockout match against powerhouse Spain, so they executed a plan that left the perimeter areas and controlled the middle areas on the strength of their star goalie.
Morocco’s success against Spain, which triggered a phone call to the coach and players from King Mohammad VI, was the result of a well-designed plan that was perfectly executed by 11 players who hustled for the entire 90 minutes plus the 30 minutes of extra time. No player slouched and everyone was dedicated to the single goal of winning.
Making a reasonable plan based on your strengths and executing perfectly might seem like a no-brainer, but a look at past and current failures shows how important it is.
The Arab world talks about unity. It set up a unified Arab League but has been unable to produce more than 10% of inter-Arab trade.
In 2012, Tawfiq Makhloufi of Algeria won the gold medal in the 1,500-meter run at the London Olympics, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj won two gold medals in the 1,500-meter and 5,000-meter run at the Athens games in 2004 and, back in 1996, Syria’s Ghada Shouaa won a gold medal in the women's heptathlon at the Atlanta Olympics. All these players won in individual contests; when it came to team sports, Arab teams failed miserably.
The same can be said about the failure of Arabs in business. Family-based businesses do very well, while corporations have barely made a dent in world business. Estimates by the World Economic Forum say that 85% of the Arab world’s successful companies are owned by families.
Wealthy Arab countries are not able to solve illiteracy and hunger. Sudan, which is supposed to be the Arab world’s breadbasket, is suffering from famine because of this disunity, and Palestinians are divided over control of their occupied lands and its leaders are unable to deliver to the Palestinian people the minimum dignity and freedom that they so desperately need. Even in Israel, Arab parties were unable to agree on a joint list in the last elections, which led to the waste of 140,000 votes.
Arab unity and Arab competence coupled with a realistic strategy that is well executed can make a huge change in the Arab world. Arab children danced in the streets when Saudi Arabia beat Messi’s Argentina and when Morocco made unprecedented advances against Spain and Portugal.
Football is a great national unifier as was seen in Qatar with everyday Arab fans and players waving the Palestinian flag. But what makes teams win on the pitch can only be converted to the political arena if concepts of selflessness, teamwork and proper strategy and execution are carried out.
Can the young Arabs who were glued to their TV sets watching the World Cup and the relative success of Arab teams be able to translate these winning goals into real life? That remains to be seen.