Jordan strikes blow for women’s football across the Middle East in AFC Asian Cup

Jordan strikes blow for women’s football across the Middle East in AFC Asian Cup
TRAILBLAZER: Maysa Jbarah (L) of Jordan tussles for the ball with Vietnam opponent Nguyen Thi Nga during the AFC Women’s Asian Cup tournament in 2014. (AFP)
Updated 31 March 2018

Jordan strikes blow for women’s football across the Middle East in AFC Asian Cup

Jordan strikes blow for women’s football across the Middle East in AFC Asian Cup

DUBAI: In 10 weeks’ time, the World Cup kicks off in Russia and Middle East audiences, as much as any around the world if not more, will tune in to see how Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia, not to mention Germany, Brazil, Spain, France and England, will get on.
Before that, however, there is one competition far closer to home that in many ways will perhaps have a longer-lasting impact on Middle East football.
In five days, the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup kicks off in Amman, bringing the continent’s best 16 teams to an Arab country for the first time.
Only one Arab team, hosts Jordan, will compete. But the importance of their participation will send a positive message to the region.
Jordan are the highest-ranked Arab team in the world, at 51 in FIFA’s rankings. The next best is Morocco at 73, while Bahrain are 77th and Egypt 78th. The UAE (the next highest Gulf team) are at 81 in the world.
Sadly, no other Arab nation from the Asian Football Federation (AFC) are close.
Being the only Arab team at the tournament may be a heavy burden, but it is one that Jordan’s players will be happy to shoulder in front of their own fans.
The hosts have been drawn in Group A with China, Thailand and the Philippines. Group B has Japan, Australia, South Korea and Vietnam.
Coach Michael Dickey’s team will not take their opponents lightly, but they will be pleased to avoid the three teams that beat them in the group stages of the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup: Japan, Australia and hosts Vietnam.
The team is better prepared this time, with star players such as captain Stephanie Al-Naber and goal machine Maysa Jbarah set to play important roles.
A lot will depend on whether Jordan can reproduce their form of the past couple of years against West Asia’s teams when it really matters against the continent’s stronger nations.
But the tournament is about more than goals and results.
At the turn of the century, women’s football across the Arab world barely existed in any meaningful sense.
That is not surprising, for a host of sociopolitical, cultural, sporting and logistical reasons.
We live in a different landscape now. Jordan continues to blaze a trail for Arab women’s teams. In 2016, the country hosted the U17 women’s World Cup, which was won by North Korea. Jordan were knocked out after losing to Spain, Mexico and New Zealand.
Yet the 16-team tournament was Jordan’s first FIFA-sanctioned competition and empowerment has come from high places.
“To have young girls playing sports, and playing football specifically, can do so much to change attitudes and perceptions as to how society perceives women,” said Jordan’s Queen Rania.
“If a Jordanian woman wants to play football, I say ‘go for it.’ Because you are a role model for society, for changing traditional roles and challenging negative perceptions regarding women. And football is the healthiest and most inspiring way to do this.”
Clearly, it is too early to compare women’s football in the Arab world to the men’s game in the Middle East or to other women’s teams around the world. For now, it is enough to see the improvement in the region itself over the past decade or so. Across the rest of the Arab world, women’s football is starting to be taken seriously.
Apart from pioneers such as Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, Bahrain was the first to set up a women’s team in the Gulf, in 2003.
In the past five years, the UAE Football Association has arguably done more than any other national body to promote the game among females, from grassroots initiatives to setting up a league that included local Emirati clubs as well as expatriate sides.
Although the UAE failed to qualify for next week’s competition in Jordan, modest but steady progress is being achieved.
“We have played in a lot of competitions, especially in the AFC Asian Cup qualification in Tajikistan,” UAE women’s coach Houriya Al-Taheri said.
“That was a very big jump in terms of improvement in the performances of the players. It helped their understanding of the game; now they know a different level of football, not just the development level. They saw how Jordan, who were in our group, are one of the best Arab and West Asia teams.”
As mentioned by Al-Taheri, Jordan took part in the qualifications despite being guaranteed a place at the tournament as hosts, the idea being to gain as much experience as possible.
It is hoped that such attitude and dedication will translate to performances on the pitch, starting this week.
But whatever the results, and before a ball has been kicked, Jordan has already struck an important blow for women’s football across the Arab world.

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool
Updated 17 January 2021

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool

Manchester United face acid test of title credentials at Liverpool
  • Jurgen Klopp’s men could drop to fifth place on Sunday if results go against them

LONDON: Liverpool and Manchester United face off on Sunday as the Premier League’s top two teams for the first time since 1997 — with the rivalry between England’s most successful clubs rekindled by a fascinating title race.

United top the table after the New Year for the first time since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 thanks to an 11-match unbeaten run to take them past Jurgen Klopp’s men.

Liverpool have surrendered top spot after three league games without a win and could drop to fifth place on Sunday if results go against them.

The last time United and Liverpool locked horns in a title race was 12 years ago.

Back then United were hardened winners under Ferguson, who saw off Rafael Benitez’s challengers to win a third consecutive league title.

Now it is United who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admits are the “hunters” chasing the champions.

Ferguson, who arrived at Old Trafford in 1986 with United firmly in Liverpool’s shadow, once famously said his goal was to knock them “off their perch” and he went on to win 13 league titles.

But United have been displaced as top dogs even in their own city by Manchester City.

And fans have been forced to watch Klopp spearhead another era of glory at Anfield, winning the Champions League in 2019 before ending the club’s 30-year wait for a league title last season — putting them just one behind United’s record tally of 20.

But, in a strange and at times soulless season in empty stadiums, the relentless consistency shown by Liverpool in recent
years has dropped off.

Hampered by a series of injuries, most notably to talismanic center-back Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool have already dropped more points in 17 games than they have in either of the past two seasons.

That has allowed United to overtake them despite a slow start to their own campaign.

Solskjaer’s men won just two of their opening six games, suffering a humiliating 6-1 reverse at the hands of Tottenham at Old Trafford.

But, on the road, United’s form has been remarkably consistent. Come Sunday, it will be almost a year to the day since they last lost an away game in domestic competition — on their last visit
to Anfield.

Since then Bruno Fernandes’ arrival has helped transform United’s fortunes. On Friday, the Portugal playmaker won his fourth Premier League player-of-the-month award in 2020 by picking up the prize for December.

“Unfortunately a good signing for United,” said Klopp.

“He is a very influential player for United obviously, involved in a lot of things.

“I know people talk mostly about the goal involvements, which is very important stuff, but he is a link-up in a lot of other situations as well.”

Without the silverware on his CV to rival Klopp or City boss Pep Guardiola, Solskjaer’s credentials for one of the biggest jobs in football are questioned every time he has a couple of bad results.

But the Norwegian has guided United into a position his more storied predecessors, Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, could not manage.

“The last few years, there have been two teams running away with it already by the end of October,” said Solskjaer.

“Now, at least, we’re in it at half-way. We’re a much better side now than a year ago.”

Questions remain over whether United’s revival is for real or another false dawn, of which there have been several in the post-Ferguson era.

Liverpool’s three-decade drought without a league title stands as a warning of how far even giants can fall.

One of Klopp’s first iconic phrases when taking charge in 2015 was his ambition to change the fatalism around the club’s mentality from “doubter to believer.”

Should United become the first visiting side to win at Anfield in the league for nearly four years, it is they who will have the new-found confidence that a 21st league title in 2021 is possible.