Arab football flying high thanks to the Green Falcons and super Salah

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Sharpshooter Nawaf Al-Abed will be key to Saudi Arabia’s chances in Russia. (AFP)
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Arrogate is looking to get back to winning ways. (AP)
Updated 08 November 2017
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Arab football flying high thanks to the Green Falcons and super Salah

DUBAI: Morocco in 1986. Saudi Arabia in 1994. Algeria in 2014.
Only three Arab teams have ever progressed to the knockout stages of a World Cup, though never as far as the quarterfinals.
It is not surprising. Considering the small number of qualifying spots they must contest with other African and Asian nations, Arab qualifications tend to be rare. And when countries do make it the odds are stacked against them.
Only once has there been more than two Arab nations at a World Cup, when Iraq, Morocco
and Algeria all qualified for Mexico ‘86.
Invariably, these countries will find themselves in pots 3 or 4 for the World Cup draw, meaning almost certain elimination.
But could Russia 2018 be the year that Arab teams finally make a mark on the tournament?
For once, the signs are positive. Already Saudi Arabia and Egypt have confirmed their places among the world’s elite 32.
Things could get better. On Nov. 11, they could be joined by both Morocco and Tunisia, which would bring the total to an unprecedented four Arab countries at the World Cup.
While both require only a draw to reach the finals, Tunisia’s task is considerably easier, as they are set to meet CAF Group A bottom team Libya at home. Even a defeat could still see Henryk Kasperczak’s men through if second place DR Congo fail to beat Guinea. Far more likely at Stade Olympique de Rades are scenes of celebration to rival those at and Borg El-Arab in Alexandria.
Morocco, though top of Group C, must do it the hard way. They travel to second-place Ivory Coast, arguably their toughest assignment of the whole qualifying campaign. A defeat there means a summer at home for the team currently coached by Frenchman Hervé Renard.
 
Egypt Returns
 
Incredibly, despite possessing a rich footballing history and their habitual success in the African Cup of Nations, Egypt have only qualified for the World Cup twice before: In 1934, when they became the first Arab team to reach the finals; and in 1990, under the guidance of the great Mahmoud El-Gohary.
Continental glory in 1998, 2006, 2008 and 2010 did not translate to World Cup qualification, meaning the world missed out on witnessing one of Africa’s greatest talents, Mohammed Aboutrika, on the grandest stage.
Now, after several years of turmoil for the national team and disruption to the domestic team, Egyptian football is approaching something like rude health again, and they can approach Russia 2018 with genuine optimism.
And perhaps for the first time ever, Egypt now have a bona fide superstar playing for one of the world’s most famous clubs. Mohamed Salah has started his career at Liverpool in stunning form and has gone up a gear from his time at Chelsea and Roma.
Unlike 28 years ago, audiences outside of Africa will be familiar with many of the squad members. Mohamed Elneny at Arsenal and Ahmed Hegazi at West Brom are just two players fans not familiar with Egyptian football will have heard of thanks to the ubiquity of the Premier League.
Their experience, along with that of those who play at home and across the Arab world, means Egypt will have no inferiority complex going into the World Cup.
 
Saudi Positivity
 
Positive vibes are also coursing through Saudi Arabian football. On Nov. 18, Al-Hilal will contest the first leg of the AFC Champions League final against Urawa Reds at home, with the second-leg a week later at Saitama Stadium.
A record third title for Al-Hilal will be a major boost for the country as they prepare for the World Cup, especially as no fewer than 10 players from the club are members of the Saudi national squad.
In comparison to Egypt, however, the Green Falcons, with the exception of teenager Mukhtar Ali at Vitesse, have no squad member playing outside the Kingdom, never mind in some of Europe’s top leagues.
But that could be about to change. It was revealed two weeks ago that Saudi World Cup squad members are being lined up for loan spells at European clubs during the upcoming winter transfer window. Whether five months will be enough to have any genuine impact on these players ahead of the World Cup remains to be seen, but many see it as merely a start of a long-term project that will ultimately reap
dividends.
Any success, however belated, will be welcome if it increases belief that Saudi Arabian players are at home playing at the highest level. 
Should Tunisia and Morocco join the party next month, the chances of an Arab team progressing to the round of 16 in the World Cup for only the fourth time will, quite literally, double.
There could never be a better time for Arab nations to finally make history at the World Cup.


India and Pakistan ready to renew rivalry in Dubai showdown

Updated 18 September 2018
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India and Pakistan ready to renew rivalry in Dubai showdown

  • India brace for Pakistan after surviving stern test against minnows Hong Kong
  • Usman Shinwari: Any player who performs well in an India-Pakistan match will find his career reaches a new high

DUBAI: As delirium sweeps the UAE ahead of the mouth-watering encounter between arch rivals India and Pakistan in the Asia Cup, it seems one man — at least outwardly — is not as excited as the rest of the country and cricketing fans the world over.
India captain Rohit Sharma played with a straight bat when asked about the biggest clash in world cricket, set to take place today at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. On his first Asia Cup media outing the 31-year-old seemed unconcerned by the impending showdown with their fiercest opponents, his focus instead on facing Hong Kong, who Sharma and Co. had a big scare against on Tuesday.
“Right now, we are not focusing on Pakistan as (first) we are playing Hong Kong,” Sharma said on Sunday. “Obviously we have to focus on that particular team but once we have finished that game we will focus on Pakistan and what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
These are clearly the words of a man so media trained that by now he could easily be on the other side of the desk, asking the same questions he and his colleagues sometimes enjoy batting back with crafted clichés that speak of focusing on “one game at a time” or the like.
Sharma was clearly right to not take his eyes off the ball with Hong Kong — they are not here to merely make up the numbers, as their brilliant, battling performance on Tuesday illustrated. But at the same time, Sharma will be all too aware that as India skipper the one match you do not want to lead your side to defeat in is the one against Pakistan, regardless of competition and location.
Clearly India are not leaving Pakistan preparations to the 14 hours or so (sleep included) between the close of the Hong Kong clash and the toss prior to resuming Indo-Pak cricketing rivalry. To suggest they are would be naive at best.
A year on from Pakistan’s show-stealing Champions Trophy final victory over the old enemy in June last year, and a whole five years since the two sides met outside of an ICC or ACC event due to strained political relations, the appetite for the first of potentially three matches at this year’s Asia Cup is huge and one borne out of starved hunger.
Pakistan’s Usman Shinwari, fresh off defeating Hong Kong on Sunday, was more candid than Sharma.
“Any player who performs well in an India-Pakistan match will find his career reaches a new high, and every player dreams of doing well in this contest,” the fast bowler said. “I took three wickets (against Hong Kong), I hope that can be five wickets against India.”
Shinwari’s sentiments were echoed by his captain, Sarfraz Ahmed, who is absolutely clear on the levels of expectation that this fixture demands from fans on both sides of the border.
“The passion is always there,” said Sarfraz. “When you play against India everyone wants us to win as it’s against India.
“The fans say that whatever happens you have to win but as a captain I have to win against every team. It would be the same for India whose fans want them to win. It has happened in the past that any player who performs in the Indo-Pak match becomes a national hero.”
UAE cricket fans cannot wait for the clash. It took just a few hours for the first batch of tickets to be snapped up, the second bought in equally ravenous fashion. It has left a huge number of tickets now being touted across online marketplaces, social media platforms and, ultimately, will likely see the inflated resales being pawned outside the stadium on matchday too.
An expected 25,000 fans will swell the Ring of Fire, set to deal not only with cricket’s most fierce rivalry but also with all the unpredictability that will be thrown their way.
The famed traffic jams around Hessa Street, leading up to the stadium, and local entrances of Dubai Sports City will heave and efforts have been made to ease the burden of vehicles that will cart both sets of fans in and out of the area. Gates will open from 12p.m. local time, a whole three and a half hours before the first ball has been bowled. In an emirate where the last-minute rush is a daily fact of life, this will be not be an easy thing to execute but that, alongside the immense presence of volunteers and security, should prove welcome additions to the day’s running order.
This, though, is India vs Pakistan. Anything could happen.