Seven Arab nations eye African success following AFCON draw

Arab football fans will have plenty to cheer in this year’s African Cup of Nations in Cameroon with seven nations competing. (AFP/File Photo)
Arab football fans will have plenty to cheer in this year’s African Cup of Nations in Cameroon with seven nations competing. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 20 August 2021

Seven Arab nations eye African success following AFCON draw

Arab football fans will have plenty to cheer in this year’s African Cup of Nations in Cameroon with seven nations competing. (AFP/File Photo)
  • The previous record was five Arab countries in the 2019 edition in Egypt

DUBAI: The record-breaking contingent of seven Arab nations competing at the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon in January learned their fate on Tuesday night, with reigning champions Algeria leading as pre-tournament favorites.

The upcoming edition, postponed from the summer of 2021 due to the pandemic, will see its most successful nation, Egypt, joined by title-holders Algeria, 2004 winners Tunisia, 1976 champions Morocco, 1970 winners Sudan as well as Mauritania and debutants Comoros to make up the largest-ever presence for Arab League member countries in the competition, with only Libya, Djibouti and Somalia missing out on the 24-team tournament.

The previous record was five Arab countries in the 2019 edition in Egypt, with Sudan and Comoros missing out of the current participants.

With Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco all seeded in the first pot, the remaining teams were fortunate to avoid drawing against hosts Cameroon, who will be facing a straightforward group alongside 2013 runners-up Burkina Faso and minnows Ethiopia and Cape Verde.

Debutants Comoros will have their work cut out for them as they find themselves drawn in the metaphorical “group of death” against four-time champions Ghana and continental powerhouse Morocco, while Gabon, led by Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, round up Group C.

After three narrow 1-0 draws in the group stage, Morocco suffered an embarrassing round of 16 defeat at the hands of Benin last time out, which cost coach Herve Renard his job. The new man at the helm, Vahid Halilhodzic, brought along bags of experience in African football, having previously coached Côte d’Ivoire and Algeria and won the 1997 CAF Champions League with Raja Casablanca. With a squad featuring new PSG man Achraf Hakimi, Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla forward Youssef En-Nesyri among other talents, they will be expected to progress from the group and go deep into the knock-out stage after the disappointment of two years earlier.

Having been drawn together in the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup taking place in Qatar in December, Nile neighbors Egypt and Sudan find themselves set to face-off again a month later with the duo joined by Nigeria and Guinea-Bissau in group D.

Egypt — record champions with seven African Cup of Nations titles to their name — crashed out of the round of 16 on home soil in their most recent appearance, but history will be a good omen for both Egypt and Sudan. The two sides have met on five occasions in the competition; on the three times that Egypt won the match, they went on to be crowned champions in 1957, 1959 and 2008. The same was true for Sudan in 1970. When they drew in 1963, it was Sudan who went all the way to the final but lost 3-0 to Ghana.

While the last Egyptian triumph in the competition dates back to 2010 and the golden generation of coach Hassan Shehata, the iconic Mohammed Salah will be hopeful of cementing his status as the nation’s greatest of all time by leading them to African glory. For Sudan, a return to the summit of the continent might be a distant prospect, but under coach Hubert Velud progress has been vivid and the possibility of calling up diaspora players such as MK Dons’ Mo Eisa, Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar and Perth Glory’s Osama Malik could prove the difference.

The Algerian title defence sees them line up against a Wilfried Zaha-inspired Côte d’Ivoire side as well as Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone, against whom they will get their campaign underway. Coach Djamel Belmadi’s side built on their continental triumph two years ago and went from strength to strength, breaking an all-time African record of going 27 matches unbeaten between November 2018 and June 2021. 

The already star-studded title-winning side of 2019, led by Manchester City talisman Riyad Mahrez and featuring the likes of AC Milan midfielder Ismael Bennacer and Borussia Monchengladbach left-back Ramy Bensebaini, was further bolstered with the emergence of talents such as West Ham winger Said Benrahma and the development of OGC Nice full-back Youcef Atal. The Fennecs will be bullish on the prospect of adding a third title after 1990 and 2019.

Group F produced a near identical draw to Group D from two years ago, with Tunisia, Mauritania and Mali all drawn together again, while it was Gambia who missed out on 2019 rounding off the group instead of Angola who missed out on the current edition. 

Back then, Tunisia stuttered to qualify in second place after failing to win a single game, drawing all three of their matches but eventually joining group leaders Mali in the round of 16. The Eagles of Carthage went all the way to the semi-final in Egypt 2019, but their unconvincing displays meant French coach Alan Giresse had to make way for Mondher Kebaier who steadied the ship, leading them to Cameroon 2021 with an unbeaten qualification campaign in which they won five and drew only one game. A lot will ride on the fitness and form of key men Wahbi Khazri, Seifeddine Jaziri and Ferjani Sassi.

On their continental debut, Mauritania earned the plaudits in a similar group in 2019, coming within a point of qualification after holding the vastly more experienced Tunisia and Angola to goalless draws. The Atlantic nation built their footballing identity around resilient defending and have demonstrated that further in the 2021 qualifiers with four clean sheets in their six games, including a pair of goalless draws against Morocco. Where they will have to improve is in the final third, with only five goals scored en route to Cameroon 2021. A slight improvement on their results from the previous edition could be enough to guide them to a historic knock-out stage qualification.

With 12 out of the previous 32 editions being won by Arab nations, the 2021 edition offers the opportunity for the region to improve on its record of one title in the past five competitions, but can any of the seven teams take that chance?


Drew McIntyre takes on Roman Reigns as WWE returns to the UK after 30 years

Drew McIntyre takes on Roman Reigns as WWE returns to the UK after 30 years
Updated 7 sec ago

Drew McIntyre takes on Roman Reigns as WWE returns to the UK after 30 years

Drew McIntyre takes on Roman Reigns as WWE returns to the UK after 30 years
  • Clash at the Castle set for Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Sept. 3

Drew McIntyre is set for a UK homecoming and the nation’s first major WWE show in more than 30 years when Clash at the Castle takes place at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Sept. 3.

With his ambition to make history in Wales, McIntyre will face off in the evening’s headline match against the current Undisputed WWE Universal Champion Roman Reigns.

The Scottish Warrior this summer emerged victorious against his former ally, Sheamus, to earn his spot in the ultimate title showdown and stand face-to-face with Reigns, who is The Head of the Table.

Reigns’ unprecedented reign at the top hasn’t been without controversy, as he held back the ferocious attacks of Brock Lesnar at SummerSlam 2022 to survive as the Last Man Standing and firmly maintain his position at the top of the Raw and SmackDown rosters.

The clash in Cardiff represents a new challenge for the champion, as McIntyre will be backed in numbers by a home crowd and all eyes will be on whether Reigns’ 700-day streak will continue.


Usyk and Joshua all the rage in first Jeddah appearance

Usyk and Joshua all the rage in first Jeddah appearance
Updated 16 August 2022

Usyk and Joshua all the rage in first Jeddah appearance

Usyk and Joshua all the rage in first Jeddah appearance
  • Ukrainian champion not distracted by the war, while British challenger confident
  • Saudi-Egyptian fighter Ziyad Al-Maayouf proud to represent the nation

JEDDAH: Fight Week for Rage on the Red Sea got underway in Jeddah on Monday night with headliners Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk making their first public appearances just days before their rematch at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena on Saturday, Aug. 20.

The British and Ukrainian fighters, as well as the organizers and promoters, gave their thoughts on the event to local and international media at the Shangri-La Hotel, with Saudi dignitaries present to cut the ribbon on what promises to be a seismic week for boxing in the Kingdom.

Rage on the Red Sea, with an undercard that also features Saudi-Egyptian boxer Ziyad Al-Maayouf and the first ever female professional fight in the Kingdom, is expected to be one of the biggest boxing events in many years.

Joshua, speaking to Arab News, said he is in a relaxed mood and very well prepared ahead of the most important fight of his career, as he looks to become world heavyweight champion for a third time.

“I don’t feel any pressure going into this unification fight. The preparations for the fight have been tough and challenging, but my confidence levels are very good and I believe we’re in a good place heading into Saturday night and (to make) history in the heavyweight championship,” he said.

“I have worked hard, sparred more and focused more on my fortitude,” he said. “Fans around the world should absolutely get ready for the extraordinary treat this weekend. For me, this is to become a three-time heavyweight champion of the world. It’s number one against number two; the unified titles, the Ring Magazine belt, it doesn’t get any bigger than this in our sport.”

Usyk is happy to fight in Saudi Arabia, and the reigning champion insisted he cannot allow the troubles in his home country to distract him from his title defense.

“Certainly my friends and people close to me are suffering, and many of the people have died in this war but I don’t let any of that get to me,” he said. “I have been training for months and it has gone extremely well. I am ready to take whatever comes my way in the main event. For a fighter, I believe mindset is exceptionally important ahead of Rage on the Red Sea and I have the mindset needed to win this fight again.”

Usyk carried a gift from his daughter as a good luck charm throughout the media session and called on his fans to watch him win on Saturday.

Frank Smith, CEO of Matchroom Boxing, said the fight will be one of the sport’s biggest nights.

“It’s been a long time coming for the Anthony Joshua vs Oleksandr Usyk rematch. Joshua will be coming in looking to knock Usyk out of the ring and get his belt back,” he added. “He has been in Riyadh three years ago and to be back here hopefully is his good luck charm to win again.”

Alex Krassyuk of K2 Promotions said that the bout will rank among the biggest, most historic fights in history.

“This rematch is not any regular match,” he told Arab News. “This is something that will be happening as a result of the first fight, in which Usyk defeated Joshua after being the underdog, and gained three belts out of four. Although he is the reigning unified champion of the world in the heavyweight division, now he has to defend his crown.”

“It’s always a very complicated assignment for every fighter to defend rather than to achieve or obtain. Usyk is very professional and knows how to work, how to deal with his job, and how to get the preparations done properly. He stayed in the training camp for more than three months. Usyk is a real professional and he knows how to stay away from bad things that can influence his approach and just focus on what will happen inside the ring.”

Commenting on any strategies that the British fighter can use against Usyk, Krassyuk said: “Joshua has a lot to lose with this since it’s his second chance. This is do or die for him. He will come with everything that he has behind him and put all the effort to gain victory.

“He will be strong and brutal, and as fast as possible to deal with Usyk within the first six or seven rounds. Usyk has to be prepared to go through hell in the first part of the fight. He needs to stick to the game plan, listen to those in his corner, and remain disciplined. Nevertheless, he is prepared and has been working hard for it since the age of 15.”

Meanwhile Al-Maayouf, who will take on Mexico’s Jose Alatorre on Saturday, believes the main event is too close to call.

“I think it’s a 50-50,” he said. “If Joshua comes into a fight trying to change too much it will be a harder night for him. Maybe if he focuses on one small thing and works on that strength, he will get to win the title back. Whereas Usyk has a strong mentality going into this fight because of everything happening in Ukraine, and he is here fighting for a lot of very important people back in his home country.”

On being the first professional fighter to represent Saudi Arabia, Al-Maayouf said that “it’s an honor and privilege to be present here and get to do what I do best in front of my home crowd. I want to be the symbol for this sport not only in Saudi Arabia but in the Arab world. I want to empower the 2030 vision and bring more and more people to see how good Saudi Arabia is at this event.”

Fight Week continues with more media interactions and a public workout for all the fighters at the Saudi Airlines Club on Tuesday, Aug. 16, before the entire card returns to the Shangri-La Hotel on Wednesday, Aug. 17, for the full pre-fight press conference.

The public weigh-ins will then take place on Friday, Aug. 19, at the King Abdullah Sports City before the fighters return to the stadium on Saturday, Aug. 20, for fight night.


Ramla Ali set to make women’s boxing history in Jeddah

Ramla Ali set to make women’s boxing history in Jeddah
Updated 16 August 2022

Ramla Ali set to make women’s boxing history in Jeddah

Ramla Ali set to make women’s boxing history in Jeddah
  • British Somali fighter has overcome adversity to take on Crystal Garcia Nova on Usyk-Joshua undercard
  • Law graduate works with UNICEF and set up ‘Sisters Club’ to help vulnerable females

For Ramla Ali, history awaits on Saturday night.

When the British Somali boxer takes on Crystal Garcia Nova on the Oleksandr Usyk versus Anthony Joshua card at Rage on the Red Sea, she will be part of the first ever female professional boxing bout in Saudi Arabia.

As a Muslim and African female pugilist, it is a moment she does not take lightly, and one that did not come easy either.

Adversity has been her constant companion throughout her career.

Ali was born in Somalia in 1989 but fled the war-torn Horn of Africa country with her family at the age of two to seek asylum in the UK.

In school, Ali struggled with her weight, so her mother sent her to a local gym in England where she soon discovered “boxercise” and started taking up the sweet science at the age of 12 without her family’s knowledge.

She caught the eye of talent scouts with regional success, representing England across Europe and eventually winning multiple amateur boxing titles.

But she claims it was not winning amateur titles and other national level achievements that made her take the leap into professional boxing.

Rather it was sparring with formidable US professional world champions and training in gyms across Europe that gave her the belief she deserved a place in the professional ranks.

“Every competition means the world to you at that time. Looking back obviously they don’t all seem to hold the same value but they’re all important chapters in the journey of a sporting career,” said Ali. “Now my family are my biggest supporters which means everything to me as I don’t think I would have wanted to continue if there was still conflict (with them).

“My parents of course would rather I didn’t punch people for a living, but they now understand it’s given me a platform to also do great work outside of the sport.”

Ali is a survivor and continues to achieve her goals despite constant challenges.

‘I haven’t had the privilege of being funded by my country during my international amateur years,” she said. “Every tournament, every camp, every coach or physio was paid for by myself and Richard (Moore, husband and manager), and with this comes the pressure of needing to perform to make sure that it’s all worth it.

“There is definitely a greater expectation of how I should carry myself in comparison to other boxers perhaps because of the young women I represent, the charities and NGOs that I work with or the French fashion brands I’m partnered with,” Ali added. “But this is a pressure I’m happy to carry because fundamentally I want my future daughter and that generation to have a role model that they can be proud of. A career and journey they can aspire to, and not without failure or faults, because I’ve experienced both sides of the coin, but this is life.”

Ali’s work outside the ring is as inspiring as it is inside it. She still deems her law degree as her biggest personal achievement and is keen to highlight the work she does with UNICEF to raise awareness of important issues in East Africa and the Middle East.

In 2018, she founded the Sisters Club. It started as a once-a-week self-defense class in a London gym, and having gained sponsorships from the likes of Nike, Pantene and other brands, Ali saw it as a way to give back to the community.

The charity offered a safe space for hijab-wearing women of color and those that have suffered from domestic violence, giving them a chance to learn about self-defense through boxing and improve their self-confidence.

Now operating across four gyms in London, Ali hopes to see the Sisters Club expand to the US and the Middle East.

Another high point for Ali was representing Somalia at Tokyo 2020, the first fighter from the African nation, male or female, to take part in the boxing competition at the Olympic Games. Her pride at representing her country led her to help set up the Somali Boxing Federation.

Unfortunately, Ali’s hopes that establishing the federation would give others a fighting chance to represent their country were countered with the disappointment of discovering Somali sports is rife with corruption.

Funding provided by the International Olympic Committee for training purposes was allegedly misappropriated by officials instead of being invested in fighters.

Looking back, Ali questions whether she should have gone down that path but remains grateful she represented her country at the Olympics before discovering any wrongdoings, saying: “To some degree, mine and my husband’s naivety and optimism were a blessing.”

Luck, and help, haven’t always been on Ali’s side and she believes far more can be done to help female fighters make the grade.

“I would like to see more of an effort from the other promotional outfits across the UK and US to push female boxing, not just through token signings but a real shift in the landscape,” she said.

Although more females are being contracted — she highlights that the “Boxxer Series” via Sky Sports recently signed two British fighters — their pay remains a fraction of their male counterparts.

“If you look at the sport of tennis, it wasn’t when the women insisted on fairer pay that they received it,” said Ali. “Rather it was when the male players like Andy Murray refused to enter tournaments because of the lack of equality, or when the pressure of journalists and media became too much, that organizations finally started making a difference in their approach.”

It is no surprise that Ali will be one of the two women who make history in Jeddah on Saturday.

Her opponent Nova is a tall, tough super bantamweight from the Dominican Republic with a knockout ratio of over 80 percent.

It will be Ali’s hardest fight yet, but she’s come to Saudi Arabia to win. Since January, she has been training in Los Angeles with coach and former professional boxer Manny Robles.

“California has without a doubt the most female world champions and the highest level of competition and so as my career progresses there is a greater need to up my training regime,” she said. “I am working with Argentinian strength and conditioning coach Mattias Erbin as well, who has been responsible for several world champions over the last 10 years.”

All the hard work, Ali hopes, will come to fruition at Rage on the Red Sea.

“I hope when people look back at me, they see a person who had everything against them in life, but through perseverance and a refusal to quit still managed to have nearly all the same opportunities in life, and achieved at the highest level,” Ali said.

“This fight will be without a doubt one of the high points in my boxing career. To have been part of helping shape the culture towards creating greater equality in the region is more important than my own personal successes or feelings.”


Murray downs Wawrinka in Cincinnati battle of veterans

Murray downs Wawrinka in Cincinnati battle of veterans
Updated 16 August 2022

Murray downs Wawrinka in Cincinnati battle of veterans

Murray downs Wawrinka in Cincinnati battle of veterans
  • The third set featured another pair of early service breaks; but Murray brought an end to hostilities with a break for 6-5 followed by a labored concluding hold of serve

CINCINNATI: Andy Murray won his first hardcourt match of the summer on Monday, defeating Stan Wawrinka 7-6 (7/3), 5-7, 7-5 in the opening round of the ATP/WTA Cincinnati Masters.
The 35-year-old Scot was facing his 37-year-old Swiss rival for the 22nd time with both treble Grand Slam champions still coming back to full form after long-term injuries over the past few seasons.
Murray lost in the first round at Washington and last week in Montreal while Wawrinka’s last win came on grass two months ago at Queen’s Club, London; he has not won on cement since the Australian Open last year.
Murray needed four match points to advance at a tournament he has won twice, in 2008 and 2011. The veteran was competing here for the 17th time.
“We’re not young anymore,” Murray said. “Both of us gave our best right until the end.
“Matches like this are a lot tougher than when we were in our mid-20s.
“Both of us love this sport, we’ve had our issues with injuries the last few years.
“The sport has been a huge part of my life, I started playing when I was four.”
Compatriot Cameron Norrie joined Murray in the second round with his 7-6 (7/5), 4-6, 6-4 defeat of Dane Holger Rune.
The Scot began to well up as he described his love for the game.
“When I was out injured and not sure if I would be able to come back, I remembered the reasons why you play the game,” Murray said.
“It’s taken a lot of effort and struggles to get back (after two hip surgeries) and play at this level again.
“I want to make the most of it while I’m still able to.”
Murray claimed the opening set in the tiebreaker as he faced his longtime rival.
The Scot went down a break in the second set but got it back before finding himself at a set apiece after being broken in the final game.
The third set featured another pair of early service breaks; but Murray brought an end to hostilities with a break for 6-5 followed by a labored concluding hold of serve.
In the closing stages, Murray loudly chastised himself as his grip on the set threatened to slip away against the Swiss whose best showing here was a semifinal a decade ago.
The contest was punctuated repeatedly by visits from the trainer for both men.
Other winners on opening day included 2016 champion Marin Cilic, who defeated Spain’s Jaume Munar 6-3, 6-3, and American John Isner, the 2013 finalist against Rafael Nadal, who advanced past France’s Benjamin Bonzi 7-6 (13/11), 3-6, 7-6 (7/4).
In the WTA draw, Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina defeated Egyptian Mayar Sherif 6-3, 6-2.
The world number 25 set up a second-round clash with eighth seed Garbine Muguruza, title-winner here in 2017.
The 23-year-old Kazakh lifted her game in the second set to end with five aces and 13 winners against Sharif.
“I was slow at the beginning but I got my rhythm and served well,” Rybakina said. “But my serve always helps me.”
The newest Grand Slam champion said she is trying to look ahead in her career as she adjusts to her status.
“Wimbledon gave me confidence but now I’m focusing on my other tournaments and trying not to think of the past,” she said.
American Amanda Anisimova beat ninth seed Daria Kasatkina 6-4, 6-4.


Morata scores twice as Atlético debuts with win at Getafe

Morata scores twice as Atlético debuts with win at Getafe
Updated 16 August 2022

Morata scores twice as Atlético debuts with win at Getafe

Morata scores twice as Atlético debuts with win at Getafe
  • Morata scored twice on Monday as Atlético began its Spanish league campaign with a 3-0 win at Getafe

MADRID: The decision to keep Álvaro Morata is already paying off for Atlético Madrid.
Morata scored twice on Monday as Atlético began its Spanish league campaign with a 3-0 win at Getafe. Antoine Griezmann also scored coming off the bench, with João Félix setting up all three goals for the visitors.
There had been doubts about whether Atlético would keep Morata after his two-year loan with Juventus ended. Some teams, including Juventus and Manchester United, reportedly had shown interest.
But Morata impressed in the preseason — which included a hat trick against Juventus — and Atlético ultimately decided it was worth keeping the 29-year-old striker.
“I don’t need to send any messages,” Morata said. “I have to keep working for myself and for my team. It was important to start with a victory. I think it’s going to be a great year.”
It didn’t take long on Monday for Morata to show Atlético was right. He scored with a well-placed low shot from the top of the area after a nice one-touch pass by João Félix in the 15th minute, then picked up another superb assist from the Portugal youngster to hit the top of the net from inside the area in the 59th.
“He is doing well, he works hard,” Atlético coach Diego Simeone said. “Everyone at the club hopes he will stay with us.”
Griezmann came off the bench and sealed the victory with a shot from outside the area in the 75th.
Atlético finished third in the Spanish league last year, behind Barcelona and champions Real Madrid.
Madrid won 2-1 at promoted Almería on Sunday, while Barcelona drew 0-0 at home against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday.