Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch
The matches are taking place at six of the eight stadiums that will be used at the World Cup. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 04 December 2021

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch
  • As 16 Arab nations battle it out on the pitch, FIFA’s resident and other officials are in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup dress rehearsal, with readiness of stadiums and new offside technology on the agenda

Just a few days into the 2021 Arab Cup in Qatar, there are already several intriguing talking points emerging, both on and off the pitch.

An emotional opening ceremony, the first round performances, young players to keep an eye on, and the new technology under the watchful eye of FIFA’s leadership.

The organizers attempted to showcase the cultures of the 16 participating Arab nations at an opening party that lasted for 30 minutes in front of a large crowd at Al-Bayt Stadium.

It was a worthy start for this 10th edition of the tournament, and for the first time since its launch in Lebanon in 1963, it is under the FIFA umbrella. And for the first time ever, it comes as a replacement for the FIFA Confederations Cup, that traditionally precedes the World Cup by a year.

That this Arab Cup is a dress rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup was given even more weight by the presence of FIFA President Gianni Infantino and other major sports leaders in the stands.

And the officials are not there for merely ceremonial reasons, but to also make sure all is going to plan, from checking the readiness of the stadiums to keeping a watchful eye on the new VAR technology for offside that is under testing with view to being implemented officially at the World Cup next year.

The matches are taking place at six of the eight stadiums that will be used at the World Cup.

The showpiece opening between Qatar and Bahrain was held in front of 60,000 spectators at Al-Bayt Stadium, and the tournament is being played across Al-Janoub Stadium, Ras Abu Aboud Stadium (974 Stadium), Al-Thumama Stadium, Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, and Education City Stadium, and Al-Ebdaa Stadium.

The new VAR addition, the so-called semi-automated offside technology based on artificial intelligence, tracks the players’ movements, giving signals on 29 points in their bodies at 50 times every second; this is picked up in the control room, then sent to the on-field official who will give his decision, as was explained by the chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee, Pierluigi Collina.

The technology has already been tested behind closed doors at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester and the Allianz Arena in Munich.

This particular improvement to the VAR system — which aims to have speedier decisions with higher accuracy — is to be welcomed, as matches continue to suffer from lengthy, confusing offside cases.

The 16 teams are made up of 10 Arab nations from the Asian continent and six from Africa, and it’s the latter that caught the eye in the first round with victories for Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s 1-0 victory over a youthful Saudi Arabian team was particularly impressive, Iraq equalized in the 98th minute against Oman, hosts Qatar beat Bahrain, and the UAE overcame Syria.

With World Cup qualification still a priority for several teams, some have decided to compete with squads made up of home-based players only, such as Egypt, or even with a second string, such as Saudi Arabia.

Herve Renard’s focus is firmly on Qatar 2022, and the Saudi national team was chosen from players born after 1999. In the circumstances, they performed well against Jordan despite the eventual defeat.

With assistant Laurent Bonadei leading the team, Renard watched from the stands as the senior players took a well-earned rest and the younger ones — many of whom played in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games — staked a claim for the remainder of the World Cup qualifiers. 

This reminded me of what Renard did with the Moroccan national team in the African Cup of Nations in 2018. They went on to lift the trophy.

Of particular interest to Renard will be the Al-Ahli goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Rubaie, Al-Shabab leftback Moteb Al-Harbi, highly rated Al-Hilal forward Abdullah Al-Hamdan and the brilliant Al-Fateh striker Firas Al-Buraikan.

On the other hand, Carlos Queiroz’s Egypt team have been criticized for their lacklustre performance against Lebanon, though they played without Mohamed Salah or Mohamed Elneny.

With the start of the second round, things are starting to take shape.

Qatar’s late, late 2-1 win over the luckless Omanis leaves them top of Group A with six points while their opponents sit in third with just one. Meanwhile, Iraq and Bahrain — who drew 0-0 — are second and fourth respectively.

In Group B, the UAE’s 1-0 win over Mauritania took them to the top of the standings with maximum points from two matches, three points ahead of second-placed Syria, who recorded an impressive 2-0 win over Tunisia.

It’s too early to draw conclusions from the early stages of the 2021 Arab Cup, but the second round of matches in the group stages are slowly giving an indication of which teams will challenge for the title.

For the fans, as much as the watching FIFA officials, there is much at stake in the coming days.


Rafael Nadal moves into Australian Open semifinals

Rafael Nadal moves into Australian Open semifinals
Updated 16 sec ago

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 36 min 14 sec ago

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.