Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, left, with Serbia's Dusan Tadic during the World Cup 2022 group A qualifying football match in Lisbon, Nov 14, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 28 November 2021

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup

Italy and Portugal facing up to possibility of disastrous absence from 2022 World Cup
  • At least one of the last two European champions will miss out on a place at Qatar 2022 after the UEFA playoffs in March

When the draw for the UEFA playoffs for the 2022 World Cup was completed on Friday, one thing dominated the headlines: Either Italy or Portugal would not be going to Qatar.

The winners of the last two editions of the European Championship failed to top their World Cup qualifying groups, missing out to Serbia and Switzerland respectively, and now might have to face each other for the right to progress to next year’s finals. That is if they overcome their “semi-final” playoff opponents of North Macedonia (for Italy) and Turkey (for Portugal).

For Italy, the situation is borderline embarrassing.

The Azzurri, less than six months on from their success at the 2020 UEFA European Championship, find themselves having to reach Qatar the hard way, and their fans might be starting to fear the worst if recent history is anything to go by.

After all, their country also failed to secure automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup after losing to Sweden in a two-legged playoff, one of the darkest moments in Italy’s football history.

Italy’s stumble in the qualifiers is all the stranger as Roberto Mancini had sparked a revival that culminated in winning Euro 2020 in July on the back of a long unbeaten run. All looked rosy for the Italians as they returned to World Cup action in the fall.

Italy had started very strongly in Group C but found their path getting complicated after drawing twice in their last three games.

Switzerland took full advantage of this, catching up and overtaking Italy in the standings and qualifying directly for the World Cup.

It was an epilogue that would have been hard to predict a few months ago, and the disappointment after the final whistle in Belfast, after Italy’s 0-0 draw with Northern Ireland, was evident on the faces of the entire team and coaching staff. Among the saddest was Jorginho, who in the dressing room could not hold back his tears, having missed a penalty in each of the two draws with Switzerland in the qualifiers. One successful conversion and it would be the Swiss sweating over progress to Qatar now.

For now, Mancini remains firmly in his post, with the Euro 2020 still fresh in everyone’s minds, and even his few critics have had sympathy for the spate of injuries the squad suffered ahead of the match against Northern Ireland.

The same cannot be said about Portugal.

Fernando Santos, their 67-year-old coach, remains the only one to give Portugal a title, but Euro 2016 grows distant with every passing year and the state of grace will not last forever.

In terms of results, his record is hardly a disaster, but neither has it been outstanding when you consider the talent that the football-crazy nation has at its disposal.

The fog around the coach is almost always based on poor quality football, especially given the caliber of players in the Portuguese squad at the moment.

Portugal’s best players grace some of Europe’s top clubs including Manchester United, Manchester City, Atlético Madrid, Liverpool, PSG, Roma, among others. Many of them are the best players at these clubs. They are therefore the best of the best.

And yet the football played by the national team pales in comparison to their club exploits, and the Portuguese blame their coach for that.

The Luz Stadium was supposed to witness a celebration in front of 65,000 spectators when Serbia came to Lisbon for the final group qualifier, but instead, and at the end of a historic night, the visitors punished Cristiano Ronaldo and his colleagues in the dying meets of the match to win 2-1.

My sources in Portugal tell me that Santos could be approaching the end of his reign as coach of the Portuguese national team.

The Portuguese Football Federation has backed him up to the playoffs, but many supporters and members of the press no longer believe that he can get the best out of this group of players.

This was evident when, at the press conference after the Serbia debacle, a journalist asked Santos: “How do you explain the poor football that the National Team presents, given the talent it has at its disposal?”

Santos looked at the journalist. He swallowed dry, straightened his tie, and said nothing.

Portugal, of course, still possess arguably world football’s greatest trump card.

Whatever lack of confidence there is in the coach, the nation can always count on Ronaldo to inspire his team in such moments.

It would be a shame not to see either Italy or Portugal in the World Cup, but sadly that is now inevitable.

In March we will know which one will miss out, if not, sensationally, both.


Rafael Nadal moves into Australian Open semifinals

Rafael Nadal moves into Australian Open semifinals
Updated 25 January 2022

Rafael Nadal moves into Australian Open semifinals

Rafael Nadal moves into Australian Open semifinals
  • Nadal is tied for most major singles titles by a male player with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic

MELBOURNE: Rafael Nadal has stayed on track for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam singles title with a topsy-turvy 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3 win over Denis Shapovalov in the quarterfinals at Melbourne Park.
Nadal had several medical timeouts in the 4-hour match, appearing related to stomach issues.
Nadal is tied for most major singles titles by a male player with Roger Federer, who is not playing here due to continuing recovery from right knee surgery, and Novak Djokovic, who was deported before the tournament began over visa issues concerning his decision not to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
Nadal will play the winner of Tuesday’s later quarterfinal between Gael Monfils and Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini. The men’s semifinals are set for Friday, so both winners on Tuesday will have an extra day to recover and prepare for their final-four showdown.
The men’s final is Sunday night.


Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr

Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr
Updated 25 January 2022

Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr

Abderrazak Hamdallah’s move to Al-Ittihad adds spice to SPL title race with former club Al-Nassr
  • Moroccan forward recently joined league leaders in Jeddah after being released from his contract by Riyadh club

The Saudi Pro League has seen so many twists and turns already this season that it would be a brave person who predicts anything with confidence.

Al-Shabab turned a poor start into a championship challenge, usual relegation-battlers Damac led the standings for a while, and reigning champions Al-Hilal have hovered on the fringes of the title race without truly getting involved.

One thing that is certain however, is that the title battle between Al-Ittihad in first and Al-Nassr in second is going to be that bit spicier thanks to Abderrazak Hamdallah.

The two-time Saudi Pro League golden boot winner started the season in Riyadh, but after being released from his contract in November, made his debut — a goal-scoring one, naturally — for Al-Ittihad on Jan.14.

Hamdallah, who spent three-and-a-half years with Al-Nassr, can be a controversial figure. He had clearly not been happy for a while in the capital, and after starting his final game for the club in October, his departure became inevitable.

Last season Al-Nassr became exasperated by his behavior, and there were reports of the player feigning injury to miss games, going on unauthorized trips to Morocco and criticizing coaches. Whatever happened, there is little doubt that if Hamdallah goes on to play a part in the title race then fans back in Riyadh may find it hard to stomach. That is because he scored lots and lots of goals — 115 in 110 games — and no supporter can fail to love a striker who finds the target so regularly.

Al-Nassr initially protested against their former star going to Jeddah, but in the end could do little to stop the move and a begrudging acceptance was the only course to take.

The situation has been made easier thanks to the Yellows’ recent form, as wins remove worries, stress and all kinds of bad feelings. Few teams in Asia would be able to lose such a guarantor of goals and barely notice, but the nine-time champions, who started the season slowly, have won their past six games to move into second behind their Jeddah rivals.

The Riyadh faithful have new heroes now. The arrival of Anderson Talisca has been a huge plus for the team and hugely entertaining for the league. The Brazilian could not get inside China to play for Guangzhou FC due to the country’s travel restrictions which led to his departure, but he has had few problems opening up defenses in Saudi Arabia since making his debut last August.

It is not only his blond hair and ungainly running style that have caused the former Benfica star to stand out. Some of his goals have been spectacular, too. Last week, he was called the best player in the league by Pity Martinez who may be a teammate, but this season there have not been many better (though Talisca declared that such a title actually belongs to Al-Hilal maestro Salem Al-Dawsari) .

Martinez, almost the forgotten man of Saudi Arabia and South American football, is also playing a part. The Argentine arrived in 2020 amid a lot of fanfare, international headlines and with a transfer fee reported to be around SR67 million ($18 million).

The playmaker was expected to lead the team to Asian glory and never really got going before a serious injury kept him out of action for almost a year. Now returning to fitness, the 28-year-old is like a new signing and has been showing glimpses of the talent that had him named as the 2018 South American player of the year. The former River Plate star looks more settled in Saudi Arabia and also has a fellow Argentine as coach. Miguel Angel Rosso may have been seen as an underwhelming choice to take over early in December, but the former Boca Juniors boss has looked very comfortable.

The same is true of Al-Ittihad. The leaders have followed the perceived wisdom and strengthened when at their best, at the top of the league and winning games. Now Hamdallah has come in as the main striker. He has yet to really gel with his teammates, but as soon as talented Brazilians such as Bruno Henrique, Romarinho and the impressive Igor Coronado (when he returns from injury) start to create the chances, then the Moroccan will surely start banging them in. That is what he does.

Not too many, though, the neutrals will hope. With Al-Ittihad six points clear, they will want a title race and will be cheering on Al-Nassr as a team in great form and looking like the only obstacle between the Tigers and a first win title since 2009.

However, Al-Nassr, who will welcome in-form striker Vincent Aboubaker back from the African Nations Cup where he has been on hot scoring streak for hosts Cameroon, want more than to challenge — they want the big prize.

And if they can stop their former hotshot from lifting the trophy then it will make victory all the sweeter. Hamdallah could make the title race very interesting, indeed.


Eight dead in Africa Cup of Nations Cameroon stadium crush

People assist victims of a stampede outside a stadium hosting an African Cup of Nations soccer game in Yaounde, Cameroon, Monday Jan. 24, 2022. (AP)
People assist victims of a stampede outside a stadium hosting an African Cup of Nations soccer game in Yaounde, Cameroon, Monday Jan. 24, 2022. (AP)
Updated 25 January 2022

Eight dead in Africa Cup of Nations Cameroon stadium crush

People assist victims of a stampede outside a stadium hosting an African Cup of Nations soccer game in Yaounde, Cameroon, Monday Jan. 24, 2022. (AP)
  • Soccer officials said around 50,000 people had tried to attend the match

YAOUNDE: Eight people were killed and many more injured in a crush outside a Cameroonian football stadium Monday ahead of an Africa Cup of Nations match.
Crowds attempted to enter through a southern entrace at Olembe stadium in the capital Yaounde to watch the host nation play Comoros.
Although the stadium’s capacity of 60,000 has been limited over coronavirus fears, the 60 percent cap is raised to 80 percent when Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions play.
“Eight deaths were recorded, two women in their thirties, four men in their thirties, one child, one body taken away by the family,” according to a preliminary health ministry report obtained by AFP.
The ministry said victims were “immediately transported” in ambulances, but “heavy road traffic slowed down the transport.”
State news had said earlier there had been “half a dozen deaths and dozens have been injured,” but there was no further information from the ministry about the number hospitalized.
A baby was also reportedly trampled by the crowd, the ministry added, although the infant was “immediately extracted and taken to Yaounde General Hospital” and is in a “medically stable” condition.
Tournament organizers had earlier confirmed to AFP that casualties had been recorded without providing further details.
Africa Cup of Nations organizing committee spokesperson Abel Mbengue told AFP: “There was a crush as can happen when there is a stampede. We are waiting for reliable information on the number of casualties in this tragic incident.”
The Confederation of African Football, which runs the continent’s flagship competition, said it was “investigating the situation and trying to get more details on what transpired.”
In a statement online, the organization said it had sent its secretary general to “visit the supporters in hospital in Yaounde.”
It added it was in “constant communication with Cameroon government and the Local Organizing Committee.”
Cameroon’s health minister Manaouda Malachie tweeted images showing him visiting a hospital treating those hurt in the incident.
“Everything is done to give them free care and the best support,” he tweeted.

Cameroon was meant to host the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019. However, the event was relocated to Egypt in January of that year over concerns Cameroon’s stadiums were not prepared for the games.
The CAF stripped the country of the tournament, citing delays in the construction of stadiums and infrastructure projects, as well as question marks over security.
Overcrowding at football matches around the world has resulted in scores of deaths.
Thousands of fans in the Egyptian capital Cairo in 2015 attempted to enter a stadium to watch a game, triggering panic as police fired tear gas and birdshot and resulting in 19 dead.
In April 2001, 43 people died in a stampede at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium during a game between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs.
And in Guatemala in October 1996, 90 people were killed in a crush during a World Cup qualification match between the host nation and Costa Rica at an overpacked stadium.
On the pitch, Cameroon sealed their place in the last eight of the tournament with a 2-1 win and will now play The Gambia in the quarter-finals.
The Comoros side had qualified for the last 16 in their first-ever appearance at the Cup of Nations.
 


Saudi Arabia to launch ‘Sports Career Day’ initiative on Tuesday

Saudi Arabia to launch ‘Sports Career Day’ initiative on Tuesday
Updated 25 January 2022

Saudi Arabia to launch ‘Sports Career Day’ initiative on Tuesday

Saudi Arabia to launch ‘Sports Career Day’ initiative on Tuesday

RIYADH: The “Sports Career Day” initiative will start on Tuesday at the Prince Faisal bin Fahd Olympic Complex in Riyadh, the Saudi Ministry of Sport said on Monday.
The three-day event, held under the patronage of Minister of Sport Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, is being organized by the Leaders Development Institute, and will run from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The initiative, part of the Quality of Life program, includes 26 workshops, with nine on the first two days, and eight on the final day, in addition to employment fairs and direct professional communication.
The initiative aims to provide channels of communication between qualified job seekers, business owners in the sectors, sports institutions and relevant authorities, to achieve the objectives of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
It also includes several accompanying events, including virtual job interviews for participants.
The “Sports Career Day” initiative has seen significant interaction from government and private sports agencies, as well as various other institutions, and more than 80 entities participated in 1,250 job opportunities across 20 fields.
The most prominent entities participating are the Ministry of Sports, the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the Saudi Football Association, the Saudi Professional League, and other sports clubs, federations, and private sports institutions hoping to open channels of communication with qualified young people wishing to enter the sports labor market.


AFCON hosts Cameroon labor to beat Comoros side deprived of goalkeeper

AFCON hosts Cameroon labor to beat Comoros side deprived of goalkeeper
Updated 25 January 2022

AFCON hosts Cameroon labor to beat Comoros side deprived of goalkeeper

AFCON hosts Cameroon labor to beat Comoros side deprived of goalkeeper
  • Comoros had to play left-back Chaker Alhadhur between the posts in Yaounde
  • To add to their woes, they had captain Nadjim Abdou sent off after just seven minutes

YAOUNDÉ: Hosts Cameroon are through to the quarter-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations but only after laboring to a 2-1 win over a Comoros side who were forced to start an outfield player in goal and played most of the game with 10 men.
The Comoros started with left-back Chaker Alhadhur between the posts in Yaounde after two of their three goalkeepers were ruled out due to Covid-19 while the other was missing due to injury.
They then had captain Nadjim Abdou sent off after just seven minutes, and Karl Toko-Ekambi put Cameroon in front before skipper Vincent Aboubakar netted his sixth goal of the tournament.
Despite that it was a heroic performance from the Comoros, who kept the tie alive until the end thanks to Youssouf M’Changama’s stunning late free-kick.
The Indomitable Lions keep their dream of winning the Cup of Nations on home soil alive as they advance to a last-eight tie against Gambia on Saturday, yet this was the Comoros’ night, despite the outcome.
The tiny Indian Ocean island nation qualified for the last 16 in their first ever appearance at the Cup of Nations after finishing as one of the best third-placed teams in the group stage.
However, their dream turned to a nightmare as a total of 12 players and staff tested positive for Covid-19 two days before the tie, including goalkeepers Ali Ahamada and Moyadh Ousseini.
Their other goalkeeper, Salim Ben Boina, was injured but they had hoped Ahamada would be able to start after he tested negative on the day of the game.
The 30-year-old Ahamada flew from Garoua, where he had been isolating, to Yaounde on Monday afternoon in the hope of being able to play, only for the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to decide otherwise as his positive result had come just two days earlier.
Alhadhur, a reserve left-back for French Ligue 2 side Ajaccio, wore the gloves, with tape used to mark out his number three on the back of his goalkeeper’s jersey.
It was a farcical scene, and the Comoros’ plight worsened when Abdou was shown a straight red card for a foul on Moumi Ngamaleu after the Ethiopian referee went to review images of his challenge.
Rather than give up, the Comoros kept going and they only fell behind in the 29th minute when Aboubakar teed up Toko-Ekambi to slot home.
The islanders, whose coach Amir Abdou was among those missing after testing positive, almost equalized shortly after as Ahmed Mogni forced Cameroon goalkeeper Andre Onana into a fine save.
Aboubakar had a second-half effort disallowed for offside before making it 2-0 with 20 minutes left, finishing excellently after being picked out by Martin Hongla.
Yet there was no collapse from the Comoros, who pulled one back courtesy of M’Changama’s piledriver from 35 meters and go out with their heads held high.