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MIDDLE EAST: Soccer fans galore but few winning teams in the Arab world

June 13, 2010 | 10:33 am

Lebanon-soccer

This year, 32 countries are competing in the most widely viewed sporting event in the world. 

But only one -- Algeria -- is from the Arab world, and in 80 years of World Cup tournaments, only one Middle Eastern country -- Turkey -- has made it to the quarterfinals.

The Middle East is wild about soccer. So why don't more of their national teams make it to the big time?

Some say governments of the region don't contribute enough to the sport.

“In Italy, every kilometer there is another soccer field,” said Davit Manoyan, a player for the Armenian national team. “Here, we have maybe 10 fields in the whole country. It’s a big problem.”

Yet others say facilities don't matter: 

“Football is a lifestyle, it’s a culture,” said Gabriel Meghruni, a former player for the Argentine club, River Plate.

“It doesn’t matter if you have a field or not," he said. "You build a field to play, in the schools, squares, parks, wherever you have enough space and something to kick – that’s all you need. Imagine,  I used to play in the street with a cork. In South America, it is that way: first family, then football. If you don’t play, others discriminate against you. It’s serious.”

Algeria-soccer Nations that support youth soccer programs may be onto something. Argentina has a strong youth soccer program affiliated with their club teams to develop promising youngsters into world-class stars.

Since the founding of the American Youth Soccer League (AYSO) in 1964, U.S. international soccer performance has improved significantly – there are more American children participating in AYSO than in any other sport, and the U.S. national team ranks 14th in the world.

“There are tons of talented soccer players around the world," said Alecko Eskandarian, a player for Los Angeles Galaxy. "The trick is how to identify these players and then put them in an environment where they will continue to flourish and improve enough to represent the national team."

This, he said, is why the U.S. Soccer Federation has made strides while some other countries have fallen behind. "It’s also why countries like Brazil, Italy, and Germany consistently produce great players and teams,” he said. 

“There is no question that these Middle Eastern countries have a wealth of talented soccer players. They have produced some amazing individual players,” said Eskandarian, whose father was on the Iranian national team. 

“But until they are able to provide a stable, organized youth system with proper funding and compensation for their national teams, it will be a struggle to consistently qualify for the World Cup.”

In 2003, several European and South American players, including Gabriel Batistuta, Titi Camara, Romário, Claudio Caniggia, Frank Leboeuf, Fernando Hierro and Josep Guardiola, transferred to Qatari club teams. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also invested in European players. It was hoped that the influx of foreign players would promote the sport in the region, but the players were only individually successful.

With the games in South Africa, the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, has fulfilled his dream of bringing the World Cup to Africa. Perhaps the Middle East is next. In April, Blatter backed Qatar to become the first Arab nation to host the World Cup, in 2022.

-- Olivia Katrandjian

Photos, from top: Fans watch a World Cup 2010 match between France and Urugway at a cafe in Beirut on June 11, 2010. Credit: Joseph Eid /AFP/Getty Images. Boys play with a soccer ball in a suburb of Algiers, Algeria on June 10, 2010. Credit: Louafi Larbi / Reuters

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