Five stars set to shine at the Asian Cup

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Son, Beiranvand and Al-Dawsari are just three players to watch out for at this month's Asian Cup. (AFP)
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Updated 03 January 2019
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Five stars set to shine at the Asian Cup

  • Tottenham's man of the moment Son set to swap Premier League action for an Asian Cup title tilt with South Korea
  • Expanded tournament to see 24 teams battle it out for continental glory in the UAE.

LONDON: We are just two days away from the big kick-off when hosts the UAE open their campaign against Gulf rivals Bahrain. It is set to be the biggest Asian Cup yet with as many as 24 teams taking part, of which seven will feel that they have a decent chance of ultimate glory.
Here we take a look at five players to watch out for over the next few weeks of footballing action in the Emirates.

OMAR AL-SOMA — SYRIA

Saudi Arabian football fans will be only too aware of what the star striker is capable of having seen him top the Saudi Pro League scoring charts for three seasons from 2015. The Al-Ahli man will be key to Syria’s chances of going deep in the UAE. They came so close to qualifying for last year’s World Cup and will be keen to make an impression over the next month. In a group with one of the big favorites Australia, Palestine and dark horses Lebanon, the Syrians will need Al-Soma to be at his best.



SHOYA NAKAJIMA — JAPAN

The Blue Samurai are perennial favorites to lift the trophy — they have won a record four Asian Cup titles. This year they head into the tournament once again as the team to beat. A lot is expected of the Nakajima, the 24-year-old one of a wave of young guns looking to drive Japan to glory in the UAE. The midfielder made his debut only last March but has impressed since and will look to be the creative spark around which the Blue Samurai can slice opposition defenses apart.



SON HEUNG-MIN — SOUTH KOREA

If there are three words that can encapsulate why the South Koreans are one of the big favorites to lift the trophy come Feb. 1 they are Son Heung-Min. The Tottenham player is in the form of his life at the moment, scoring 11 goals in his past 16 appearances for the London club. The hope for South Korea boss Paulo Bento is that Son can take that form into the side’s title tilt. If he does then it will take some performance to stop Son and Co. It is not just Son’s goals that will be important but also his creativity, during the same period he has scored 11 goals for Spurs he has also assisted five goals and been at the hub of everything good about a Tottenham side that when on song look as good as any in Europe.



ALIREZA BEIRANVAND — IRAN

While much has been made about Iran’s attacking threat, with players such as Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh to pose threats to opposition defenses, Iran’s key player could well be the big man at the back. Even though Team Melli exited last summer’s World Cup at the group stage Beiranvand was one of the best goalkeepers in Russia, saving a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo being on of his many highlights. He was key in Persepolis making the final of last year’s Asian Champions League — where they were beaten by Kashima Antlers — and if he can have another standout tournament in the UAE expect Carlos Queiroz’s side to mount a title challenge.



SALEM AL-DAWSARI — SAUDI ARABIA

The Green Falcons have failed to progress beyond the group stage at the previous two Asian Cups and should they fall at the first hurdle this time around it will be a huge shock and failure. That they head into the tournament confident they can make a big impact is down in part to the presence of players such as Al-Dawsari. The Al-Hilal winger scored the winner in they side’s 2-1 win over Egypt at the World Cup — the side’s first win at the tournament since 1994. It was just reward for a campaign which saw the Green Falcons improve with every match and proved that in players such as Al-Dawsari there is a core group of young players who are learning all the time and getting better with every match. Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi wanted to use the World Cup success as a springboard to an Asian Cup title challenge, the form of Al-Dawsari will be key if one is to materialize.

 


NBA, FIBA announce plans for pro league in Africa

Updated 17 February 2019
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NBA, FIBA announce plans for pro league in Africa

  • The Basketball Africa League is a new collaboration between the NBA and the sport’s global governing body FIBA
  • Qualification tournaments will be held to determine those clubs that will take part

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina: The NBA is bringing a pro league to Africa.
The Basketball Africa League, a new collaboration between the NBA and the sport’s global governing body FIBA, was announced Saturday. The initial plan is for the 12-team league to begin play in January, and former President Barack Obama is among those who are expected to have direct involvement with the league’s plan to keep growing the game in Africa through the league and other initiatives.
The scope of what Obama’s involvement will be remains unknown, and it’s yet to be determined which existing club teams will be part of the league. Qualification tournaments will be held later this year to determine those clubs, with teams from Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia expected to be among those taking part. No nation will have more than two teams in the league.
“As we’ve been talking about this concept over the last several months, there’s been a tremendous reception from many of our NBA team owners ... and in addition, several of the partners of the NBA have expressed a strong desire to work with us in Africa,” Silver said.
Silver said Pepsi and Nike’s Jordan Brand — Charlotte owner Michael Jordan was among the owners in the room where Silver made the announcement — are among the partners who have reached out to the NBA and said they want to be part of the Africa league. Silver also said that Obama, an enormous basketball fan, has told him he wants to “be directly involved with these activities in Africa.”
Silver said talks between the NBA and Obama are ongoing. Obama spoke on a video that was shown during the event where Silver announced the league.
“I hope you know through sport, that if you put in effort, you will be rewarded,” Obama said. “I hope you learn through sport what it means to play as a team, and even if you are the best player, your job is not just to show off but your job is to make your teammates better.”
The NBA and FIBA’s involvement will include financial support and resources toward continued growing of the game on the continent, as well as providing training for players, coaches and referees and some infrastructure for the new league. Silver said there are 438 companies in Africa that generate more than $1 billion in revenue annually, but that sport there has not seen the same growth — yet.
“Africa is a huge economic engine,” Silver said. “And one place, though, where we haven’t seen enormous economic growth yet is in the industry of sport. And that’s something that we are all particularly focused on.”
The NBA has held three games in Africa since 2015, all of them selling out — two games in Johannesburg, the other in Pretoria. Many of the league’s current players and coaches, along with several legends and Hall of Famers, have been part of those trips.
“I went with them last year,” Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said. “The NBA reaches out across the world.”
The league has an office in South Africa, has helped create 87 learn-and-play facilities in seven African nations, and 13 players who were born in Africa on opening-night NBA rosters this season. The league also built an academy in Senegal that opened nearly two years ago.
“It’s a huge joy to see our partnership with the NBA enter uncharted territory as we work together for the first time to maximize the potential of professional basketball in Africa,” said Andreas Zagklis, FIBA’s secretary-general.
This marks the first time the NBA has been involved with the operation of a league outside of North America.
“We’re excited to work closely with the NBA to develop and put in a place a professional league like none that we have ever seen in our region before,” said FIBA Africa Executive Director Alphonse Bile. “Through the Basketball Africa League, we can provide the many great clubs and players with the best possible environment to compete for the highest stakes.”
The NBA says more details about the new league will be released in the coming months.