Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two great rivals of West Asian football and there is a chance that these two powers, who are now without diplomatic relations, could meet at the 2018 World Cup.
First, though, they will have to get out of their groups. and that is far from a given.
Iran have been the best team in Asia for some time and were seen as the continent’s best hope of getting into the knockout stages. The team were the second after Brazil to qualify for Russia, strolling through the 10 games of the final round unbeaten and conceding only two goals.
Of Asia’s five representatives at the tournament, Iran are not only the highest-placed in FIFA’s world rankings at 36, but are the only one not to change coach in the past year. Carlos Queiroz has been in Tehran since 2011 and the former coach of Real Madrid is as experienced as they come, turning Iran into a well-oiled machine.
The defense may be famous around the continent, but compared to four years ago when the team managed only a single point, there are many more attacking options available to the boss. Right winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh finished the Netherlands season as the top scorer with 21 goals – there were also 12 assists. At the age of 24, he is only going to get better and the World Cup could be the perfect stage.
Then there is talented striker Sardar Azmoun, only 23 and already in demand from big clubs such as Liverpool in the English Premier League. Karim Ansarifard was the second top scorer in the Greek league. Then there is the highly-rated Mehdi Taremi.
All was looking good, but then the draw was less than kind. An opening game against Morocco is winnable and it probably has to be won because then comes two extremely tough games. The first against European champions Portugal and then 2010 World Cup winners Spain, ranked 4 and 8 in the world. Even if Iran can defeat Morocco, then the team will have to take at least a point against the two European heavyweights.
There is better and worse news for Saudi Arabia, a team that has, unlike Iran, been to the knockout stage of the tournament back in 1994. Now though, the Green Falcons are the lowest-ranked in the whole tournament at 67 and few in the country and fewer outside expect much. Fans will likely have to be content with just enjoying a first World Cup since 2006.
Yet the draw has been as favorable as could have been expected. Opening game opponents in Russia are hosts and playing in front of their home fans, but there is serious pressure and the team is ranked only one place higher than Saudi Arabia.
Then comes Uruguay, ranked 17, a tough team but not as strong as in the recent past, and then a final clash against Arabian rivals Egypt and red-hot Liverpool striker Mo Salah.
Saudi Arabia are the outsiders, especially after changing coach twice since sealing qualification in September, but if coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, who led Chile to the 2016 South American title, can get a point from the opening two games then a win against Egypt may well be enough. Attacking stars such as Fahad Al Muwallad and Salem Al Dawsari will have to be at their best.
The two sets of players face another complication and that is the fact that preparations for the tournament will be entirely held during Ramadan.
The holy month, when all Muslims of a certain age are expected to fast during daylight hours, started on May 17 and ends on June 14, the same day Saudi Arabia kicks off the tournament against host Russia in Moscow.
The issue of how teams, both of the club and national variety, deal with Ramadan has been around for years. The World Cup will bring it into focus like never before with no less than seven of the 32 nations competing in Russia with squads either fully or mostly made up of Muslims.
“We will respect completely whatever the players decide,” Saudi Arabia’s Argentine head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said. “We have to be respectful. “We as a technical staff will explain to them what they will face at the World Cup in terms of the level of competition, so they will have all the information available to them and can make their own decision in a complete way.”
It is something else for the respective coaches to think about, but it is unlikely that these rivals will get a chance to test each other. Iran may be able to squeeze into the second round, but it is hard to see them being joined by Saudi Arabia.