Hopes high 2027 AFC Asian Cup heading to Saudi Arabia

Saudi football is on a high with Al-Hilal being crowned Asian champions and the Green Falcons on course for the World Cup - it will hope to host the AFC Asian Cup in 2027 too.  (AN Photo/AFP)
Saudi football is on a high with Al-Hilal being crowned Asian champions and the Green Falcons on course for the World Cup - it will hope to host the AFC Asian Cup in 2027 too. (AN Photo/AFP)
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Updated 24 November 2021

Hopes high 2027 AFC Asian Cup heading to Saudi Arabia

Saudi football is on a high with Al-Hilal being crowned Asian champions and the Green Falcons on course for the World Cup - it will hope to host the AFC Asian Cup in 2027 too.  (AN Photo/AFP)
  • The race to host the next-but-one edition of Asia’s top tournament (2023 will take place in China) is being fiercely contested

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia are flying in qualification for the 2022 World Cup, Al-Hilal on Tuesday won a record fourth AFC Champions League title, and if footballing figures in the Kingdom are proven to be correct in anticipating success for the country’s bid to host the 2027 Asian Cup, their prediction would complete an historic hat-trick, on and off the pitch.

The race to host the next-but-one edition of Asia’s top tournament (2023 will take place in China) is being fiercely contested with India, Iran, and Qatar and a final decision will be announced early next year.

But a senior Saudi source told Arab News: “Discussions are happening as we speak, and we are very, very confident that the honors will be ours.”

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation launched its bid last year with the slogan “Forward for Asia,” and since then, the country has certainly hit new heights in Asian football.

The Green Falcons have won five and drawn one in six games so far in the final round of qualification for the World Cup and currently sit on top of Group B with four games remaining, four points ahead of Japan, and five clear of Australia. The team has one foot in Qatar.

Officials at the AFC were also impressed by the atmosphere created by fans in the latter stages of the Champions League in Riyadh and also in World Cup qualifiers, especially in October when more than 50,000 supporters roared the team onto victories over Japan and China.

Al-Hilal’s triumph in the AFC Champions League over Pohang Steelers of South Korea was not only an historic one but reinforced the sense that, at the moment, the Saudi Professional League was the best in Asia.

Earlier this month, representatives of the Asian Football Confederation visited the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam on a five-day inspection tour and were pleased with the facilities already in place in terms of stadiums and infrastructure.

In the SAFF’s favor, despite being one of the continent’s traditional powerhouses with three Asian Cup wins, five World Cup appearances, and a number of continental club trophies, Saudi Arabia has, somewhat surprisingly, never hosted Asia’s top tournament.

That gives the country a huge advantage over Qatar, one of its biggest rivals. The 2022 World Cup host could easily stage the continental tournament but did just that as recently as 2011 as well as in 1988.

Iran is another two-time host and also an Asian powerhouse but women not currently being allowed in stadiums to watch football is an issue. The AFC would love, at some point, to take its flagship tournament to India and its population of 1.4 billion people, but there is a feeling that it may be best to wait until the next decade.

For Saudi Arabia, it is looking good. It would have been perfect for the country’s football fans had the selection decision been made, as originally scheduled, in the coming days, when the country’s football successes on the pitch would have been front and center of the AFC congress. However, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has meant that the announcement will come early next year but that is unlikely to make a major difference.

Confidence is still high that Saudi Arabia will host the 2027 Asian Cup.


Emirati boxing duo mark the country’s 50th National Day ahead of high-profile bouts at Coca Cola Arena in Dubai

Emirati boxing duo mark the country’s 50th National Day ahead of high-profile bouts at Coca Cola Arena in Dubai
Updated 21 sec ago

Emirati boxing duo mark the country’s 50th National Day ahead of high-profile bouts at Coca Cola Arena in Dubai

Emirati boxing duo mark the country’s 50th National Day ahead of high-profile bouts at Coca Cola Arena in Dubai
  • Fahad Al-Bloushi and Sultan Al-Nuaimi spoke of their pride at the UAE’s achievements as they prepare for Probellum: Revolution on Dec. 11

Emirati boxers Fahad Al-Bloushi and Sultan Al-Nuaimi, who will be competing at Probellum: Revolution in Dubai on Saturday, Dec. 11, have spoken about the sense of pride they feel when representing their nation on the global stage.

To mark the country’s 50th National Day on Dec. 2, Al-Bloushi and Al-Nuaimi visited the UAE flags at Kite Beach, where they paid tribute to the country on its special anniversary and looked ahead to fighting in front of a home crowd at the Coca-Cola Arena.

Al-Bloushi, 25, represented the UAE at the 2018 Asian Games, before going on to make his professional debut a year later.

The Emirati believes this is a fantastic time for UAE boxing, and he is looking forward to showcasing his talents at next week’s big event, in which he faces Ghana’s Kamarudeen Boyefio.

“I’m really ecstatic to be involved in the show because for a while it’s been a dream of mine to fight at the Coca-Cola Arena,” said Al-Bloushi. “I can remember driving past the venue and thinking about how much I’d love to be involved in a match there so to know I’m doing it next week is surreal.

“My training camp has been going well, I’ve had some great sparring partners and my team has been brilliant in terms of helping me push forward. I have no doubt it’s going to be a great night,” he said. “Boxing in the UAE is becoming the next big thing. Dubai has everything in terms of facilities, so it’s amazing for us to be involved in the sport right now.”

For Al-Nuaimi, a two-time national champion at amateur level, the bout against India’s Sahil Rahman represents a major opportunity for him to shine on a big stage.

“I’m really excited about performing at the Coca-Cola Arena, one of the best venues in the Middle East,” he said. “In terms of boxing, this is the biggest event in the UAE’s history, and many of my friends and family have already bought tickets, so it’s going to be great.

“Carrying the UAE flag and being a part of this country is all I want, it really means a lot to me.”

Those patriotic sentiments are echoed by Al-Bloushi, who explained what the 50th National Day means, both on an individual and collective level.

“I feel really proud to be from the UAE, especially when you consider everything we, as a country, have achieved over the past 50 years in terms of inclusion and achieving the impossible,” he said. “To be able to represent this country is a wonderful feeling.

“Watching someone carry your flag as you walk to the ring makes you realise that you’re not just representing yourself, you’re representing the whole country, and it’s always very special.”


FIFA Club World Cup draw puts Al-Hilal on course for semi-final meeting with Chelsea

FIFA Club World Cup draw puts Al-Hilal on course for semi-final meeting with Chelsea
Updated 32 min ago

FIFA Club World Cup draw puts Al-Hilal on course for semi-final meeting with Chelsea

FIFA Club World Cup draw puts Al-Hilal on course for semi-final meeting with Chelsea
  • Saudi, Asian champions will have to beat playoff winner Al-Jazira or Auckland for right to face European title holders

RIYADH: What better test for the most successful team in the history of Asian football than to take on the European champions and, probably the current best team in the world, in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup?

Having claimed a record fourth AFC Champions League title after beating Pohang Steelers 2-0 last week in Riyadh, Al-Hilal are on course to meet Chelsea if they win their second-round match.

Apart from a clash with the English Premier League side in the final, this is the next best thing, and it is very much on the cards in early February after Monday’s draw.

The date is to be confirmed as is the game itself. Al-Hilal will have to overcome the winner of the Feb. 3 clash between New Zealand’s Auckland City and Al-Jazira of the UAE but the prospect of Chelsea lying in wait is an enticing one.

At the moment, the Blues are top of the Premier League and looking very ominous indeed. Thomas Tuchel has turned the London team into a machine and one that many outside Saudi Arabia would expect to dismiss Al-Hilal without much of a thought.

It was always thus. No Asian champion has yet defeated their European equivalent in the FIFA Club World Cup but surely, one day, that is going to happen. With Al-Hilal the best team in Asia at the moment and the tournament taking place in the UAE, there are reasons to be confident.

With attacking players at the level of Bafetimbi Gomis, Moussa Marega, Matheus Pereira, Salem Al-Dawsari, Salman Al-Faraj and others, there is the offensive capability to worry any team in the world. The question is, of course, whether the defense will be able to keep the $130 million Romelu Lukaku and the likes of Mason Mount, Hakim Ziyech, and Reece James at bay.

Before that, Al-Jazira will be expected to beat Auckland, especially on home soil.

The Abu Dhabi outfit have a fine record at the Club World Cup. In 2017, they reached the semi-final. That also started with a hard-fought 1-0 win over Auckland and then, Al-Hilal should beware, a victory over the Asian champions, Urawa Reds of Japan. In the semi-final, the Emirati side, incredibly, took the lead against the mighty Real Madrid. It took second half strikes from Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to win the game for the most successful club in European history.

The prospect of taking on the Saudi champions is a welcome one for the UAE champs.

Following the draw, Al-Jazira’s Dutch boss Marcel Keizer said: “Our first match against Auckland City will not be easy. We will face a team that depends on physical strength, and we hope to reach the next round.”

Then comes a much bigger occasion. “If we qualify, we will meet Al-Hilal, and it will be a difficult match, especially as it is the champion of Asia and a strong team, but we are ready to play a good match, and it will be an exciting and beautiful confrontation,” he added.

Al-Hilal at least have recent experience in this tournament, finishing in fourth place at the 2019 edition. Gomis scored the only goal of the game against Esperance de Tunis to dump the African champions out. There was a 3-1 loss in the semi-final to South American giants Flamengo, having managed a 1-0 lead at the break thanks to Al-Dawsari.

It was a solid showing but not something to be completely satisfied with. The issue for Asian teams in the Club World Cup is whether it is better to have the glamour tie against the European champions or try to go all the way.

After winning the Asian title, Al-Hilal coach Leonardo Jardim said: “We play every game to win it. We know there will be strong teams in the Club World Cup, and we’ll not be favorites, but our objective will be to win as many matches as possible.”

Just playing the likes of Chelsea should not be the ultimate aim. That has to be to lift the trophy. And that is what former Saudi international Faisal Abu Thaneen was talking about as he reacted to the draw.

He said: “One day, this goal of winning the Club World Cup will be achieved. Raising the ceiling of your ambition and setting lofty goals makes you work hard to make it a tangible reality.”

The ex-Hilal star is right. The Riyadh giants are good enough to be excited at the prospect of playing a competitive match against Chelsea but also good enough to aim past the semi-final to try and go all the way.

At present, Saudi football is flying high in Asia. The Green Falcons are the continent’s in-form team and Al-Hilal have just won a record fourth Asian title. Chelsea may be a tough challenge, but this Saudi powerhouse are no pushovers.


Ballon d’Or sees Barca childhood fan Putellas go down in folklore

Ballon d’Or sees Barca childhood fan Putellas go down in folklore
Updated 30 November 2021

Ballon d’Or sees Barca childhood fan Putellas go down in folklore

Ballon d’Or sees Barca childhood fan Putellas go down in folklore

MADRID: Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.
Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.
Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.
Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.
She started playing the sport in school, against boys.
“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.
So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.
“That’s where things got serious... But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.
After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.
She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.
In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.
It was in the following year that she made the step up to the national team and she has gone on to feature in four major tournaments with Spain, winning 92 caps.
Last season was her crowning glory as her childhood side won the Primera Division and the Copa de la Reina as well as the Champions League in a matter of weeks, a historic achievement for a Spanish women’s outfit.
Individual recognition shortly followed, as she was named UEFA women’s player of the year and Monday’s announcement in Paris made her just the second Spanish player, after Luis Suarez in 1960, to win the much-coveted Ballon d’Or.
 


Messi’s enduring brilliance rewarded with another Ballon d’Or

Messi’s enduring brilliance rewarded with another Ballon d’Or
Updated 30 November 2021

Messi’s enduring brilliance rewarded with another Ballon d’Or

Messi’s enduring brilliance rewarded with another Ballon d’Or
  • The award a is record-extending seventh Ballon d’Or for the best player in the world

PARIS: Some might question whether Lionel Messi really deserved to win his latest Ballon d’Or prize ahead of other worthy candidates, but the Argentinian has been rewarded for continuing to be so good for so long.
The most turbulent year of Messi’s glittering career, in which he was forced to tearfully bid farewell to Barcelona, ends with him — at the age of 34 — claiming a record-extending seventh Ballon d’Or for the best player in the world.
In Germany they thought it had to be Robert Lewandowski’s year after he missed out 12 months ago when the 2020 edition was scrapped due to the pandemic.
Karim Benzema might have had plenty of support in Spain for his remarkable performances with Real Madrid, and Jorginho could stake a claim following a year in which he won the Champions League with Chelsea as well as Euro 2020 with Italy.
Yet it is the enduring brilliance of Messi — who won the last award in 2019 — which stays in the minds of the jurors when it comes to voting.
Having joined Paris Saint-Germain in August, he is the first male player to win the award while with a French club since Jean-Pierre Papin of Marseille in 1991, although it was his achievements with Barcelona and with Argentina that counted toward him effectively retaining his crown.
Messi tried unsuccessfully to force his departure from Barcelona in August 2020 but he showed no signs of rancour as he stayed put at the Camp Nou and ended last season with 38 goals in 48 games for his boyhood club.
These are the kind of remarkable figures that he has made so mundane over the course of his career — indeed he had actually scored more goals than that in 10 of his previous 11 seasons.
Messi was the top scorer in La Liga for the fifth consecutive year with 30 goals and won the Copa del Rey, scoring twice in the final as Barcelona beat Athletic Bilbao 4-0.
This will always be remembered as the year his long association with the Catalan giants came to an end, after 672 goals in 778 appearances, a record goal tally for one club.
However, 2021 was also the year he finally won a major international title, captaining Argentina to victory in the Copa America with a 1-0 win against Brazil in the final at the Maracana.
He scored four goals in the tournament as Argentina won the South American championship for the first time since 1993.
“I think I won this trophy thanks to what we did at the Copa America so I dedicate this to my teammates,” he said after being handed his latest Ballon d’Or at the Chatelet Theatre in central Paris.
However the shame was that hardly any fans were in the stadium to witness Argentina’s Copa America success due to coronavirus restrictions, only adding to the sense that, despite all he has achieved, Messi still has unfinished business.
Not least at PSG, where he has so far played just 11 games since arriving in August, and scored just four goals.
Messi did provide three assists for the Parisians in a Ligue 1 match on Sunday but it remains to be seen how motivated the Argentinian is by the French league. He has other priorities.
“My dream is to win another Champions League,” he said at his unveiling in August, with the last of his four European Cups coming in 2015.
Then there is the really big one: the World Cup in Qatar will be underway this time next year and Messi will be 35 by then.
That will surely be his last chance to win the greatest trophy of all, and you imagine he would swap his seven Ballons d’Or to get his hands on it.


5 things to look out for at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar

Ali Mabkhout will look to break records, Lebanon can find a way to win and Qatar will be hoping to win silverware on home soil in FIFA Arab Cup. (AFP/File Photos)
Ali Mabkhout will look to break records, Lebanon can find a way to win and Qatar will be hoping to win silverware on home soil in FIFA Arab Cup. (AFP/File Photos)
Updated 29 November 2021

5 things to look out for at 2021 FIFA Arab Cup in Qatar

Ali Mabkhout will look to break records, Lebanon can find a way to win and Qatar will be hoping to win silverware on home soil in FIFA Arab Cup. (AFP/File Photos)
  • 16-nation tournament kicks off on Tuesday, will act as dress rehearsal for next year’s World Cup

LONDON: The 2021 FIFA Arab Cup kicks off on Tuesday with 16 teams vying for the title in Qatar.

The tournament means different things to different competitors and here are five talking points ahead of it.

1. No Salah but many opportunities for Egypt to step up

For Egypt, the tournament is a big step in preparing to reach another competition in Qatar in November next year.

Carlos Queiroz took the job as head coach in September and led the team to the World Cup play-offs without much fuss. There will be no Mohamed Salah in this tournament and the country’s European-based stars will also be absent.

It will, therefore, be a chance for others to catch the eye of the Portuguese coach and for the well-travelled boss to check the country’s strength in depth.

Ultimately, however, Queiroz is not taking his eyes off the main prizes.

He said: “Our goal in the Arab Cup is to prepare the players for the World Cup qualifiers, and for the Africa Cup of Nations. This does not mean that we will not compete for the trophy, but the first and main goal is the World Cup. Ask any citizen and fan what they want, and they will say the World Cup.”

Any player who excels over the next three weeks could earn a place in the Africa Cup of Nations squad in January.

“We have a base of players from which to choose for the two World Cup qualifiers, and I am prepared to include any player who performs well,” Queiroz added.

2. A chance for Qatar to lift silverware on home soil

The World Cup hosts have played in more competitions than most in the past year or so, appearing at the Copa America and also the Gold Cup, Concacaf’s big tournament.

But with the World Cup taking place on home soil, the Maroons have had to sit and watch as Asian rivals go through the grueling final round of qualification.

The team have an all-Asian group and a strong squad with Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, and all the rest and that should be enough to get past Bahrain, Oman, and Iraq and into the knockout stage.

The Asian champions will be hoping to go all the way and lift the trophy in the final on Dec. 18. Winning silverware in an international tournament on home soil would only boost confidence ahead of the big event in less than a year.

3. Ali Mabkhout can close the gap on Cristiano Ronaldo

The UAE have not been impressive so far in the final round of qualification for the World Cup. The somewhat fortuitous win over Lebanon in November was the first victory in the sixth game in the group. Automatic qualification is not going to happen but a route to Qatar still exists through the play-offs.

The team need to improve, however, and games against Syria, Mauritania, and Tunisia are a great opportunity for Bert van Marwijk to take charge of his team in a competitive tournament but one that does not have the pressure to win that comes with other events.

One issue to be solved is that of Ali Mabkhout. The team is too reliant on the striker but understandably so to an extent, as he has scored 14 goals in 13 games so far this year. With 79 international goals, he is now just one behind Lionel Messi and Sunil Chhetri. If Mabkhout scores twice then he will be the second-highest active international scorer though he will have some way to go to catch Cristiano Ronaldo on 115.

4. Lebanon can find a way to win

On Sunday, Youssef Mohamed, the technical director of the Lebanon national team as well as a former captain, said that the Cedars should aim to lift the trophy. He admitted that it was a long shot but not impossible. After all, in World Cup qualification Lebanon could be, even should be, sitting clear in third place of their group in the final round but four points were dropped late in the games against Iran, and the UAE.

The team need to find a way to make the most of these situations. Coach Ivan Hasek has them working hard, well-drilled, and organized but the Arab Cup is a great opportunity to try a more expansive plan.

Lebanon need to add a little variety to their attack and to try and keep the ball more — their possession rate was a measly 29 percent against the UAE. Had the ball been shared around a little more equally there would have been less pressure on the defense and maybe the whole penalty incident could have been avoided.

5. It is a perfect time for a World Cup rehearsal

A year before the World Cup it is usually time for the Confederations Cup. It was always going to be difficult to have that dress rehearsal with teams from around the world at this time. The Arab Cup, then, will offer a glimpse of how the first World Cup in the Arab world will look.

Fans and journalists will be able to get an idea of what it will be like, after World Cups in huge countries such as Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, to attend a tournament in a small country where it is possible, with a little planning, to watch two games a day.

It is to be hoped that there are some good games but more importantly, a feel-good factor among fans and good atmospheres in stadiums.