Miracle win in Japan leaves Branko Ivankovic dreaming of historic trip to World Cup with Oman

Miracle win in Japan leaves Branko Ivankovic dreaming of historic trip to World Cup with Oman
Branko Ivankovic, the Croatian coach of the Omani football team, says they no one as they head into Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022 against Australia and Vietnam. (AFP)
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Updated 30 September 2021

Miracle win in Japan leaves Branko Ivankovic dreaming of historic trip to World Cup with Oman

Miracle win in Japan leaves Branko Ivankovic dreaming of historic trip to World Cup with Oman
  • Coach says his team fears no one as they head into Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022 against Australia and Vietnam

Branko Ivankovic has a dream. The Croatian coach, who led Iran to the global showpiece in 2006, wants to return to the FIFA World Cup.

For a man with such a dream, Oman is not the usual destination of choice, with the sultanate having never previously qualified for the World Cup.

A month ago, few would have given him a chance of realizing his goal, as the Omani national coach faced arguably the toughest start to qualifying for Qatar 2022 — Japan away, followed by Saudi Arabia at home.

“I came to Oman because I want to go to the World Cup,” Ivankovic told Arab News.

“Of course, I know it will be very hard and tough, but I have a right to have a dream. Without ambition, without high ambition and goals, it’s not possible to realize what we want to do.”

With Group B matches against Australia (Oct. 7) and Vietnam (Oct. 12) coming up, the assignment does not get easier. But with the right mindset, anything is possible.

“Maybe we are too ambitious, but I try to get across to my players a winning mentality and not to be scared of anything.”

For a player in Asia, few assignments are tougher than traveling to Japan to face the Samurai Blue. Even the very best feel a sense of trepidation at the prospect.

But on a rainy night in Osaka last month, if Ivankovic’s team had any fear, they certainly kept it well hidden. They played brave football throughout and, instead of cowering, took the game to Japan. They were the better team and created the better chances.

“The most important thing was to convince the players that the team can do anything, to play with a full heart and maybe to make a surprise,” he explained.

“The first game is always hard and tough, especially if you are the favorite playing at home; the players are under pressure. Oman coming, maybe they’re thinking Oman is not such a tough team, they will be easy.

“From the first day of preparation I tried to convince my players to go to Japan not just to play the game and go home. I tried to convince them that we’re going to try to beat Japan.”

And that is exactly what they did.

As time ticked by and the rain continued to fall, the match looked destined for a 0-0 draw, which still would have been a fantastic result for the team ranked 78th in the world by FIFA.

But as Ivankovic looked to his substitutes bench, he followed the mantra he had worked so hard to instil in his players — always be bold.

So, with a little under 10 minutes remaining, instead of taking the safe option and locking down to secure a famous point, he took the game on, taking off midfielder Zahir Al-Aghbari for striker Issam Al-Sabhi.

“We didn’t think about just playing defensive,” he said. “If you remember, we put on a second striker in the last 10-15 minutes, which showed that we tried to do something, not just put a defender and keep it 0-0.”

He adde: “I felt we could do something because Japan at that time wasn’t 100 percent and they didn’t find any good solutions for how to beat us.”

It proved a masterstroke as less than five minutes later Al-Sabhi got on the end of a wicked cross from Salah Al-Yahyaei, side footing the ball past a helpless Shuichi Gonda in the Japanese goal. 

The strike gave Oman a lead that, on the balance of play, they fully deserved — but one that would have seemed improbable just two hours earlier.

“The most important thing for me was that we deserved this win against Japan,” the 67-year-old Ivankovic said.

Asia was on notice. Oman were not here to just make up the numbers.

While the win in Japan was followed by a tough 0-1 loss to Saudi Arabia, their performance in that game showed again they will be no pushover. Had Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali converted a gilt-edged chance in stoppage time, they would have walked away with a very handy point.

Against Japan they had the benefit of the element of surprise, but after their shock win, they can no longer fly under the radar. While delighted with the result in Osaka, the former Persepolis manager is under no illusions about the campaign’s remaining challenges.

“Our group is so, so tough,” he said.

“As you know in this group there’s Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia, teams which normally participate in the World Cup in the last 20 years. And of course, not just hard teams, we also have a big problem with travel.

“We have to travel to Japan, Vietnam, China, Australia — and this is also a big problem, not just for Oman but for all teams.”

That travel burden has been eased somewhat by news their away game against Australia will now be played in neutral Qatar.

However, their record against the Socceroos does not make for pretty reading, with just one win in their previous nine encounters, and their two most recent matches ending in 4-0 and 5-0 defeats.

But buoyed by their Osaka miracle, Ivankovic and his team know anything is possible.

For now, they are daring to dream.

Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Updated 03 December 2021

Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton gunning for glory at first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
  • Reigning champion heads into F1 race 8 points behind Max Verstappen, tells Arab News of balancing pressures of racing with interests off track

JEDDAH: The first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is almost here, and the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time could not be more relaxed, considering what is at stake.

A potential record-breaking eighth championship is back within tantalizing reach. And as the eyes of the world turn to the newly completed Jeddah Corniche Circuit, F1 has never been more popular.

And some of its newest fans have come from a most unexpected source. “I think it’s changed the game,” said Lewis Hamilton.

High praise indeed. Not for a new car, or some revolutionary technical innovation, though. Hamilton was referencing the Netflix show “Formula 1: Drive to Survive,” and how it had brought the sport to a whole new global audience.

“I don’t think anybody knew what it was going to do for the sport exactly. Definitely thought it would be positive, but it’s changed the sport for good I think,” the reigning world champion added.

“I think it’s been the best thing because our sport is often quite difficult for people to understand. If you turn the TV on, you have no clue what’s going on. It’s very intricate, very complex, and there’s so many moving parts.”

The world’s most exclusive sport suddenly seems that little bit more welcoming to outsiders these days.

The 36-year-old Mercedes driver said: “Most people play football at school, play tennis, or try out these other sports. Most people don’t get the chance to race cars, so it’s been great for that show to be able to showcase that there are actual personalities within sport and the excitement in depth rather than just what you see on TV.

“And now there’s this whirlwind of new fan following, and yes the close championship makes it even more exciting.”

Not that Hamilton’s profile needed boosting.

Lewis Hamilton has helped design IWC’s Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition ‘Lewis Hamilton’. (IWC)

Seven-time world champion, possessor of most pole positions (102) and race wins (102), and now gunning for a record eighth driver championship with Mercedes, Hamilton is coming off a sensational win at the first ever Qatar Grand Prix which has cut Max Verstappen’s lead at the top of the standings to eight points.

“The track was awesome. When we started driving it, just with the wind direction and the grip level, the speed of all the corners, they were all medium- and high-speed corners, I was sure the racing was not going to be great there. But it actually was, surprisingly.

“Qualifying lap, single lap, felt incredible and we had good preparation,” Hamilton added.

Having won the previous weekend in Brazil, Hamilton and Mercedes initially struggled in Doha.

“The Friday was a difficult day for me, I was nowhere, and I just kept my head down and studied hard and was fortunate, I felt, to turn it around and have a great Saturday and Sunday.

“I definitely didn’t know that at this point I’d be this close (to Verstappen in the standings) and have the performance that we finally were able to unlock with the car. I’m super grateful for it,” he said.

Next up for the rivals is this weekend’s inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and yet another new track in Jeddah Corniche Circuit.

“I think all the drivers have driven the simulator; it is incredibly quick. It is a bit reminiscent of Montreal in terms of the long straight track that they have there, but they’re all curved at this track, and also there’s not a lot of run-off area so it really is quite a street circuit, and right in the city.

“It looks pretty epic to be honest, but we won’t fully know until we feel the rollercoaster ride of the real G-Force and speed, once we get there,” Hamilton added.

The reigning Formula 1 world champion says his interest off the track have helped him keep perspective in his racing career. (IWC)

The British driver will be hoping to take the championship to the last race in Abu Dhabi, where the Yas Marina Circuit has been reconfigured for the first time since its completion in 2009.

He said: “It’s obviously an incredible circuit with the whole build-out of the place, I think they spent the most on that circuit than any other circuit, so it’s a great spectacle, beautiful last race of the season. But the layout has always been very, very difficult to follow and overtaking is quite difficult.

“It’s quite interesting that they’ve made these changes and I really think it’s going to unlock the potential of that circuit, to be more of a racing circuit. Because it’s so hard for us to follow each other, when they make these types of small changes, it’s hard to follow those through.

“So, from the simulator driving that I’ve done it looks like it’s going to make it very, very difficult to hold, to even keep position. It looks like it could be something where you’re constantly switching and changing. They might move to one of the best racing circuits, we’ll see when we get there,” he added.

Of Hamilton’s seven titles, six have been won with Mercedes in the last seven years, and such was his dominance at times, often it seemed that he was racing against himself, and history.

The closeness of this season’s battle with Verstappen and Red Bull is something Hamilton is cherishing.

“I really am because each year you’re faced with different scenarios. I wouldn’t say that it’s ever been a choice for me. I’ve never had it easy, in my younger days starting with an old go-kart, having to always race from the back.

“And particularly in karting, there was always wheel-to-wheel racing, super close. It was always down to that last lap, you had to be very, very tactical to make sure you came out first. I miss that in racing, and as you get through your cars you get less and less of that, and it’s more about positioning and holding the position.”

Red Bull have certainly raised the stakes this season, but Hamilton and Mercedes have risen to the challenge in recent weeks; the gap to Verstappen is down to only eight points in the drivers’ championship, while the team now leads Red Bull by five points.

Hamilton said: “Then of course we have all these disparities between cars each year, one team does well, and the other team doesn’t. We’ve done well for quite a few years, it’s amazing to now have this close battle again because it’s reminiscent of my karting days in terms of how close it is.

“But it also meant that we all have to elevate and perfect our craft even more. That’s what sport is about, right? That’s why it’s been super exciting. It’s been challenging for my engineers, for the mechanics, how do they dig deep and squeeze more out of their potential. It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions, but something I’ve really enjoyed.”

Should Hamilton win the title in Abu Dhabi, it will be a very popular victory among the natives. The organizers of the race at Yas Marina Circuit still speak with pride at how Hamilton — who races in No. 44 — took part in the UAE’s 44th National Day celebrations in 2015.

Having spent a significant part of his life racing around the world, Hamilton has seen first-hand how F1 has grown in the Middle East.

“Each time we go out to Bahrain, the crowds seem to get bigger and bigger. Abu Dhabi gets bigger and bigger each time we go and of course we have more and more presence now particularly with Qatar and Saudi,” he added.

Crucially, more young people are taking up motorsports in this part of the world, especially karting.

“I just spoke to someone from Saudi, I don’t know a lot of people in Saudi, but they are talking to me about how there are a lot of girls, and boys, where their first choice is not football, it’s racing,” Hamilton said.

“It’s quite cool to see there is a new generation out in the Middle East that are car crazy and want to be racing. So, who knows, maybe in the future we’re going to see a Formula 1 driver from somewhere in the Middle East, I think that could be quite cool. Would be even better if that was female.”

Hamilton, famously, has developed many interests, and supported many causes, outside racing.

“Being an athlete, being a sportsman, most often that’s all you do and for me it’s been important to find other outlets, other areas, because if you focus on one thing it doesn’t always lead to happiness.

“You’ve got to be able to fill and explore your other potential, other avenues that you might be good at. It’s always great to be able to turn your mind off from racing, and focus on something else, something that you can be creative with,” he added.

Unlike most other drivers, or athletes, Hamilton has had ventures into music and fashion. He has also built a close relationship with Swiss watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen — for whom he is an ambassador — over the last few years, helping design his very own timepiece, Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Edition Lewis Hamilton.

“So, I really enjoyed the whole process, from sitting in the car at Hockenheim with Christopher (Grainger-Herr, chief executive officer of IWC Schaffhausen), driving to the airport and talking about a potential collaboration, and talking about the intricacies of a watch, and saying I want my own watch one day, to now having my own timepiece.

“It was really challenging for me, sitting there working with them because I have a lot of appreciation for the brand’s work and expertise, but I also wanted to add my own touch. I had questions like, what can we change on the dial? The tourbillon, I want to get the tourbillon in one of my pieces because it’s one of my favorite movements, if not my favorite movement,” he said.

In recent years, activism has played a big part in Hamilton’s life away from F1, and he has become an outspoken advocate for social equality, diversity in sport, and environmental sustainability, his own X44 team taking part in the first ever electric SUV rally series, Extreme E, this year.

Hamilton noted that it was vital for him to work with people who shared his values.

“So, I’ve been on calls with my partners at IWC Schaffhausen talking about things like, what are you doing during this time about diversity? How diverse is your company, what are your goals, how are you going to be more inclusive moving forward? And they’re fully on board with that.

“That for me is amazing to see, that people are conscious of sustainability, brands are conscious of the impact that we’re having on the planet. I only really like to engage with people that are like-minded in that sense, rather than just business-minded,” he added.

Far from being distractions, his interests away from racing have helped him keep an almost zen-like sense of perspective in his career, as his continued brilliance on the track has shown.

He said: “Tapping into different things helps take the pressure off this crazy, intense world that I have over here. Because if I stop and think about that and only think about the racing, I have 2,000 people working flat out, depending on me at the end to pull it through.

“Partners, and my own expectations can be super overwhelming, so these other things help me dilute that pressure and feed that energy into something positive.”

Still, when he lands in Jeddah for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix this weekend, expect one thing, and one thing only, to be on Lewis Hamilton’s mind.

Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family
Updated 02 December 2021

Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family

Jailed former paralympic athlete Pistorius moved closer to victim’s family
  • Pistorius went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest
  • He is set to speak to Steenkamp's parents in a process known as victim-offender dialogue

CAPE TOWN: Former South Africa paralympic superstar, Oscar Pistorius, jailed in 2016 for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, has been moved closer to her family ahead of reconciliation talks that could help pave the way for his early release from prison.
Pistorius, known as “Blade Runner” for his carbon-fiber prosthetic legs, went from public hero to convicted murderer in a trial that drew worldwide interest. He becomes eligible for parole after serving half of his 13-year sentence.
Pistorius is set to speak to Steenkamp’s parents, June and Barry Steenkamp, in a process known as victim-offender dialogue — an integral part of South Africa’s restorative justice program in its prison system that brings parties affected by a particular crime together in a bid to achieve closure.
“They are participating in the process because they have committed themselves to being part of the victim-offender dialogue. They feel they have to do this for Reeva,” Tania Koen, lawyer for the Steenkamps, said of the family.
Pistorius’ lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Gold medalist Pistorius, once the darling of the Paralympic movement for pushing for greater recognition and acceptance of disabled athletes, shot dead Steenkamp, a model and law student, in his bathroom in 2013.
Pistorius said he had believed she was an intruder but was jailed in 2016, initially for a six-year term. After an appeal by prosecutors who said this was too lenient the term was increased to 13 years.
He has now been moved from a prison near Johannesburg to one on South Africa’s east coast, near where Steenkamp’s parents live.
Neither their lawyer Koen nor Singabakho Nxumalo, a spokesman for the department of correctional services, could provide Reuters with a timeline for the discussions.
“It is very sensitive process, highly emotional... and we do not force people to participate in it,” Nxumalo said.
“But we are saying at least it does lay a foundation where people can, if possible, forgive each other, find one another and then try to move forward in harmony,” he said.

COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix

COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix
Updated 03 December 2021

COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix

COVID-19 hits Williams F1 team ahead of Saudi Grand Prix
  • Team Principal Jost Capito tests positive for Covid before traveling to Jeddah, Williams ‘team will continue to operate trackside as planned’
  • Still mourning the loss of founder Frank Williams, the team goes to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit having garnered 23 points so far this season

PARIS: Williams’ Team Principal Jost Capito has tested positive for COVID-19 before traveling to Jeddah for this weekend’s Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, the British Formula One outfit announced Thursday.
“Jost is now following UK national health authority guidelines,” the team said in a statement. “There has been no wider impact on Williams Racing personnel and the team will continue to operate trackside as planned.”
Still mourning the loss of founder Frank Williams, the team goes to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit having garnered just 23 points so far this season.
The penultimate round of the 2021 World Championship season sees Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton of Britain clinging to the tail of Dutch championship leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull with just eight points separating the pair.

Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation

Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation
Updated 02 December 2021

Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation

Eriksen uses Danish training field as part of rehabilitation
  • The 29-year-old midfielder is using a field at Odense Boldklub
  • Eriksen has not played since falling face-first onto the field during Denmark’s opening match

COPENHAGEN, Denmark: Christian Eriksen has resumed training in Denmark as part of his rehabilitation after suffering a cardiac arrest at the European Championship.
The 29-year-old midfielder is using a field at Odense Boldklub, the club where he started his career before playing for Ajax, Tottenham and most recently Inter Milan before collapsing while playing for Denmark in June.
“Christian Eriksen is using our pitch to rehabilitate,” Odense Boldklub told The Associated Press on Thursday. “He asked us if he could use our pitch to train, which we approved.”
Eriksen is not practicing with the squad of the top-division Superliga club, located 170 kilometers (105 miles) west of Copenhagen, it said.
Eriksen has not played since falling face-first onto the field during Denmark’s opening match at the European Championship against Finland on June 12. His teammates formed a protective wall around him as medical workers resuscitated him with a defibrillator.
Eriksen spent a week in the hospital, where he had a type of pacemaker fitted. Depending on the cause of the cardiac arrest and the nature of his treatment, he could be prohibited from playing in Italy with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator but could continue his career in countries where the rules are different.
There is no indication when Eriksen could resume playing. He remains under contract at Inter Milan. He’s made 109 appearances for Denmark.

ICC slices up events cake as dates and locations for next cycle of short-format men’s tournaments are announced

ICC slices up events cake as dates and locations for next cycle of short-format men’s tournaments are announced
Updated 02 December 2021

ICC slices up events cake as dates and locations for next cycle of short-format men’s tournaments are announced

ICC slices up events cake as dates and locations for next cycle of short-format men’s tournaments are announced
  • With cricket’s image increasingly tarnished in recent times, the ICC’s close-knit venue selection methods would benefit from greater transparency

No sooner had Australia’s name been etched on the T20 Men’s trophy on Nov. 14 than the International Cricket Council (ICC) announced the host venues for the next cycle of short-format men’s tournaments.

Venues for women’s tournaments are awaited.

The men’s cycle, running between 2024 and 2031, comprises 50-over One-Day International (ODI) World Cups, expanded to 14 teams; Twenty20 World Cups, expanded to 20 teams; and Champions Trophy competitions. The venues are summarised below and reveal some intriguing results.

First, the allocation of the 2024 T20 World Cup to a combination of the West Indies and the USA represents a boost for both the ailing finances in the Caribbean and the ambitions to expand the game in the US, where the ICC hopes cricket will feature in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Secondly, India has been granted three of the eight men’s tournaments. Although two of them are co-hosted, respectively, with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the award of these hostings, when added to India’s sole hosting of the 2023 ODI tournament in October/November 2023, provides further proof, if it was ever required, of India’s influence in world cricket.

Year ICC Event (Men) Host(s) * Full Members
2024 T20 World Cup USA, West Indies*
2025 Champions Trophy Pakistan*
2026 T20 World Cup India*, Sri Lanka*
2027 ODI World Cup South Africa*, Zimbabwe*, Namibia
2028 T20 World Cup Australia*, New Zealand*
2029 Champions Trophy India
2030 T20 World Cup England*, Ireland*, Scotland
2031 ODI World Cup India, Bangladesh*


Thirdly, England has only one hosting, with that being shared with Scotland and Ireland. This distant event in 2030 will mean an interval of eleven years between England’s last major hosting, that of the ODI World Cup in 2019. Some may interpret this as a loss of influence.


Fourthly, Pakistan has been selected to host the 2025 Champions Trophy. This 50-over tournament between the top eight ranked teams has been re-instated. It will be Pakistan’s first ICC tournament since 1996 and will be a boon for its enthusiastic fans, who were denied the opportunity to watch international cricket at home this year when both New Zealand and England abandoned their visits.

Fifthly, reflecting its recent achievements in reaching the Super12 Stage of the 2021 T20 World Cup, Namibia will co-host the 2027 ODI World Cup with South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In its official announcement of the venues, the ICC stated that this was the first time that a competitive bidding process had been adopted for ICC events and that 14 members hosting eight events reflected the global nature of the sport.

Closer inspection suggests that a more tortuous process had been followed. The decision to introduce a bidding mechanism had been made at an ICC meeting in October 2019. It reflected the ICC’s aim to make the game more global, by opening the opportunity for any member – full or associate - to bid to host ICC events. In the previous eight-year cycle, all major men’s events had been allocated to the “big three,” Australia, England and India, so the bidding process represented a shift in philosophy.

This did not sit well with the big three. India, in particular, was concerned that cricket, especially Tests, played between two countries, would suffer. It appeared to regard re-instating the Champions Trophy as unnecessary. In February 2020, to India’s apparent annoyance, the ICC emailed all members asking them to tender their expressions of interest for hosting any of the 20 global events in men’s and women’s cricket between 2024-31 by March 15, 2020.

Once these had been received, the ICC planned to use the choices to shape the timing and location of the events in the cycle. Then a formal Request for Proposal process would be opened for six months. A host of eligibility criteria was drawn up, including the required infrastructure to stage the events, the current cricketing eco-system in the market, the growth potential and development of infrastructure in place, along with guarantees placed in relation to visas, tax exemptions, customs and security.

The onset of the pandemic caused a hiatus in the process, which resumed in February this year, followed by an announcement in early June, specifying that the ICC Board would select the event hosts, rather than through an open bidding process. The change in tack seemed to turn on an argument that only a few, probably referring to three, members had the necessary infrastructure and skillsets to host the largest events. It may also reflect changes in senior personnel in both the ICC and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

By July, 17 member nations had expressed interest, with the 10 full members submitting preliminary technical proposals. The second stage of the process would involve more detailed proposals which allow the board to make final decisions.

It delegated the overseeing of host venue selection to a three-man sub-committee. This comprised three members of the main ICC Board — the chair from New Zealand, the president of Cricket West Indies and the BCCI president, who became chair of the ICC Men’s Cricket Committee this November.

It is not clear how the members of this committee were chosen, nor is it clear what the criteria were for the final selection of hosts. The results clearly benefit India but not so much the other two of the big three. The ICC has achieved a wider global spread of events in line with its strategy. This is likely to be further enhanced once it completes a similar process and announces, in early 2022, the hosts for the women’s and Under 19’s events in the next cycle.

At present, cricket’s image is tarnished, its conduct under scrutiny. In the UK, this is for its racism scandal. Cricket Australia is in the dock for an alleged lack of probity relating to its handling of captaincy appointments. The BCCI has long been accused of wielding too much power within the game.

In this environment, the ICC’s close-knit venue selection methods would benefit from greater transparency.