Africa Cup of Nations has persevered despite twin risks of infection and injury

Africa Cup of Nations has persevered despite twin risks of infection and injury
Egypt's Mohamed Salah controls the ball during the African Cup of Nations 2022 quarter-final soccer match between Egypt and Morocco at the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium in Yaounde, Cameroon, Sunday, Jan. 30, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 02 February 2022

Africa Cup of Nations has persevered despite twin risks of infection and injury

Africa Cup of Nations has persevered despite twin risks of infection and injury
  • While club and player concerns have in many cases been shown to be well-founded, the tournament has increasingly thrived as we look ahead to the semifinals

The Africa Cup of Nations quarterfinals have come and gone. A Mohamed Salah-inspired Egypt will now face hosts Cameroon while Senegal will take on Burkina Faso in the other semifinal.

Only four matches remain, including the final on Feb. 6. And while the tournament has recovered from a slow start to provide more thrills in the knockout stages, it will also have lasting consequences for the number of injuries and coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases that have been recorded.

They are particularly concerning in a tight calendar packed with local and international competitions, starting with the delayed 2021 FIFA Club World Cup and the conclusion of the World Cup qualifiers, not to mention the domestic leagues around the globe and Qatar 2022 itself.

Egypt, who after AFCON will face Senegal in the World Cup decider next month, have particularly suffered in recent matches with two goalkeepers, Mohamed Elshenawy and Mohamed Abou Gabal, having to be replaced while defensive rock Ahmed Hegazi will now miss the rest of the tournament.

Meanwhile, Al-Ahly’s Akram Tawfik was injured in Egypt’s opening match of the tournament against Nigeria, and X-rays showed he had damaged his cruciate ligament, forcing him out of football for at least six months. With his season over, Tawfik now misses his club’s participation at the Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi — where his club will take on Mexico’s Monterrey on Feb. 5 — as well as having the uphill task of making Egypt’s squad should they qualify to the World Cup in Qatar at the end of the year.

European and international clubs with star players at AFCON will dread injuries, and Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp must have had his heart in his mouth when Senegal’s Sadio Mané collided with Cape Verde goalkeeper Vozinha in the round of 16 clash. Mané remarkably stayed on the pitch to score the first in a 2-0 but was unable to continue minutes later and was taken to the hospital immediately. Thankfully, he recovered fully to play in the 3-1 quarterfinal win over Equatorial Guinea and should lead his country in the semifinal against Burkina Faso on Wednesday night.

However, Mané’s incident led Luke Griggs, deputy chief executive of the Headway association for brain injuries, to criticize the protocol of the tournament’s organizing committee for not allowing teams to make an emergency switch for players with a concussion and concluded that the Senegalese staff had to replace Mané immediately after his injury. The incident cast a light on the safety regulations of the Confederation of African Football and FIFA since Mané was ready to play again days later.

Risk of injury on international duty is something clubs and players accept, the former reluctantly and the latter perhaps with more stoicism. However, concerns for their club careers — essentially their day jobs — and the subsequent impact on the player’s market value, quite rightly cannot be ignored. This has led to calls for referees to punish and reduce rough play and thus injuries at AFCON.

A tournament like AFCON has traditionally exhibited high levels of intensity, but this year teams have had the extra factor of the ongoing pandemic to deal with.

Hundreds of players across the world have tested positive for COVID-19 in recent months and Tunisia, for example, had at one stage during the tournament 10 players unavailable due to the virus.

The long-term effects are yet to be clearly understood, but many players have struggled following their recovery, including Lionel Messi, while Kevin De Bruyne has gone on record as saying he still has not recovered 100 percent.

Studies in Germany, England and Italy have revealed that players who returned to action after suffering from COVID-19 were producing significantly lower performances, in particular those who are over 30 years old. Focus, accuracy and endurance levels were all affected, which in turn have a knock-on effect on the results of clubs after the recovery of their players.

In some cases, as at AFCON, recovery from COVID-19 cases was not enough to return to action.

The Gabonese duo of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, newly of Barcelona, and Nice’s Mario Lemina had to depart their country’s camp before a ball had been kicked due to COVID-19-related concerns. Aubameyang, 32, returned to his then-club Arsenal for tests after he was diagnosed with a heart irregularity following his infection with COVID-19.

In 2022, that is a risk that football has to live with.

Considering the unavoidable risk of infection and injury in the middle of the domestic league season, going ahead with AFCON has to a large extent been vindicated. The clubs will have their complaints, but by and large, we have been treated to an increasingly exciting competition.

And hopefully a beautiful end is yet to come.

Saudi esports federation chief says Kingdom has huge potential in market

Saudi esports federation chief says Kingdom has huge potential in market
Updated 03 October 2022

Saudi esports federation chief says Kingdom has huge potential in market

Saudi esports federation chief says Kingdom has huge potential in market
  • Prince Faisal bin Bandar said Saudi youth would play a role in esport development

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has huge potential in the esports market given its location between east and west, the chairman of the board of Directors of the Saudi Esports Federation (SEF) said Monday.

Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Sultan, speaking about the Kingdom’s e-sports strategy recently launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also said Saudi youth would play a role in its development, considering more than 21 million young people are interested in gaming.

Prince Faisal’s comments came during a tour that included Singapore and South Korea, during which he participated in the All That Matters Conference in Singapore and the World esports Summit in South Korea.

The conferences involved a large number of senior executives from around the world in the world of Web3, music, sports, games, digital and marketing.

During the tour, which aimed to introduce the Saudi strategy and its objectives, Prince Faisal touched on the sectors that it aims to develop — including new technologies and devices, the esports production sector, the governance and regulations sector, in addition to infrastructure and attracting and developing talents.

UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season

UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season
Updated 03 October 2022

UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season

UAE Pro League: High-flying Sharjah maintain perfect start to season
  • Gabrielzinho Al-Wasl’s hero after two goals secure derby win over Al-Nassr
  • Last season’s runners-up Sharjah sustained the now sole 100 percent start with a 3-0 win at Khor Fakkan

Sharjah’s superstars showcased their collective might, Belgium center back Jason Denayer endured a chastening Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club debut and an electrified Al-Wasl exhibited flashes of brilliance in a fevered Bur Dubai derby when the ADNOC Pro League returned at the weekend.

A lively restart after the international break was headlined by a double strike from Al-Wasl’s Gabrielzinho in a raucous 2-1 win at Al-Nasr’s packed out Al-Maktoum Stadium. Former Barcelona ace Miralem Pjanic netted his second goal in UAE football and Greece center back Kostas Manolas didn’t put a foot wrong during his first appearance as last season’s runners-up Sharjah sustained the now sole 100 percent start with a 3-0 win at Khor Fakkan.

There was less joy for second-half substitute Denayer who witnessed new employers Shabab Al-Ahli go down 3-2 at expected strugglers Al-Dhafra.

Champions Al-Ain rebounded in a 3-0 beating of dark horses Ittihad Kalba, while Carlos Carvalhal ignored the noise surrounding him at Al-Wahda with an emphatic 4-0 victory at upstarts Al-Bataeh, although this result couldn’t prevent him becoming the campaign’s first managerial casualty.

Ex-Serbia youth international Sasa Ivkovic’s 94th-minute goal, meanwhile, saw Al-Jazira drop points for the first time with a 1-1 draw at Baniyas, and Morocco hit man Walid Azaro’s brace helped Ajman to a 3-1 win — their first of the campaign — against promoted Dibba Al-Fujairah.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the matchweek four action:

Player of the week: Gabrielzinho (Al-Wasl)

It was supposed to be the weekend when star power dominated. It was, though, a less-heralded addition from the division’s extensive summer trolley dash who shone brightest.

Gabrielzinho arrived to little fanfare at Zabeel Stadium from promoted Portuguese outfit Rio Ave in July. But the 26-year-old winger guaranteed himself Wasl supporters’ eternal affections with a decisive — and defining — brace in Saturday’s derby.

Each goal saw the ball move from the Wasl penalty box to their opponents’ at lightning speed. Each involved a youthful trident of emerging UAE golden child Ali Saleh, increasingly influential Argentina youth international Tomas Chancalay — unburdened about an eligibility row when on the pitch — and the Brazilian free agent.

The latter pair directly contributed to both goals. Chancalay’s ability to dribble and retain clear vision at high velocity was rewarded with both assists for Gabrielzinho — one finish into the roof, the other into the bottom left.

Al-Wasl had only 29 percent possession and lost the attempts count 16-9 on a night in which ex-AC Milan, Benfica and Morocco midfielder Adel Taarabt debuted for the opposing Blue Wave.

But expressive head coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s blueprint was all over this. Center backs Aleksandar Vasiljevic and Soufiane Bouftini defended stoutly, allowing a vibrant attack — led by Gabrielzinho — space to plunder.

Goal of the week: Mohamed Rayhi (Al-Dhafra)

Remarkable goals and remarkable results adorned this round.

Toze’s unstoppable free kick was immaterial for Nasr, Azaro’s whipped second secured Ajman three points and Caio’s thunderbolt showed it’s not just the massive names who’ll stylishly deliver for Sharjah.

The best of all, however, came in the Western Region.

Mohamed Rayhi sparked bedlam amid Dhafra’s technical team as his measured, curled effort from 30 yards near the hour mark put the unfancied hosts 3-0 up against celebrated Shabab Al-Ahli.

This moment typified the defiance, ingenuity and skill required to prevail in such a mismatch.

It provided enough of a buffer to eventually win 3-2 and an injection of belief to hang on for this memorable first three-point haul of the season.

Coach of the week: Carlos Carvalhal (Al-Wahda)

Managers rarely field questions about their futures in the aftermath of a 4-0 victory.

This was, however, the case on Sunday for Carvalhal.

Disquiet and rancour after a winless beginning stained the build-up to a seemingly tricky trip to Bataeh. These issues were pushed to one side, for 90 minutes at least, in an uplifting performance on the east coast.

Portuguese sports daily O Jogo then reported after the final whistle about an impending exit for Carvalhal and return of Spain’s Manolo Jimenez. The former’s departure was then made official on Monday night, with the latter’s rehiring – he led them to fifth in 2019-20 eason – expected to imminently follow.

Carvalhal’s swansong saw ex-Everton and Napoli defensive midfielder Allan adding bite upon his opening start, with former Benfica skipper Pizzi buzzing around with seven key passes. 

Veteran striker Sebastian Tagliabue’s first goal back at the Al Nahyan Stadium-outfit – a 153rd in the top flight for them - supplied further gloss, in a fixture dominated by set-pieces.

Carvalhal - a coveted former Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas, Swansea City and Braga tactician – was just four months into a lucrative one-season deal. He swiftly leaves with barely an imprint made.

Local talent isn’t being crowded out

It would be curious to consult UAE head coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena about this unprecedented transfer window.

The former Boca Juniors, Villarreal and Argentina full back is patently aware of top-level demands. But there must be a degree of nervousness about opportunities afforded to potential Whites stars, especially after a scoreless international period which contained 1-0 and 4-0 friendly reversals to Paraguay and Venezuela.

Yet, the 47-year-old should be encouraged by the sight of six UAE-eligible scorers in matchweek four.

Mabkhout maintained his one-goal lead in the scoring chart, Wahda center back Fares Juma struck from a set piece, 20-year-old forward Ahmed Fawzi marked his Jazira-to-Dhafra loan with a goal and Shabab Al-Ahli wide man Yahya Al-Ghassani tapped home in vain.

Naturalized attackers Tagliabue and Caio Canedo also got in on the action.

It was this season’s joint highest round tally for UAE-eligible players. A fact given greater value as it followed the previous fortnight’s accumulation of more renowned foreigners.

Emirati players are responding positively, it seems.

Classico stalemate, Al-Hilal shocked: 5 things we learned from round 5 of Roshn Saudi League

Classico stalemate, Al-Hilal shocked: 5 things we learned from round 5 of Roshn Saudi League
Updated 03 October 2022

Classico stalemate, Al-Hilal shocked: 5 things we learned from round 5 of Roshn Saudi League

Classico stalemate, Al-Hilal shocked: 5 things we learned from round 5 of Roshn Saudi League
  • Two red cards overshadowed the 0-0 draw between the Riyadh and Jeddah giants, while the reigning Saudi and Asian champions were stunned at home by Al-Taawoun

The Roshn Saudi League returned to action after the FIFA international break and while the eagerly awaited Classico between Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad didn’t produce a winner, there were plenty of highlights and surprises elsewhere. Below are five things we learned from round five.

1. Stubborn Al-Ittihad dig in for point at Al-Nassr

The stalemate in the Classico was not one of those vintage 0-0 draws and will be remembered for the two red cards. The first was given to Al-Ittihad midfielder Tarek Hamed for a bad tackle on Vincent Aboubakar just before the break, and the card that came after a video review provoked the biggest cheer of the evening.

The second was shown to Al-Nassr’s Abdulmajeed Al-Sulaiheem, whose offense was similar, just before the hour.

In front of a full and hostile Mrsool Park in Riyadh, the dismissals were not a major surprise but even with 11 men, it looked as if Al-Ittihad, already without the injured Romarinho and Helder Costa, were content with a point and were happy to keep things tight. Being reduced to 10 men meant that coach Nuno Espírito Santo and his men really shut up shop to frustrate the hosts.

After the game, Nuno talked of the spirit his players demonstrated and it was impressive to see how compact, organized and focused the Tigers were. It wasn’t pretty but it got a result in their toughest game of the season so far and still, no team has scored against Al-Ittihad this season.

2. Al-Nassr shouldn’t be too down

There was no doubt that Al-Nassr were more disappointed than Al-Ittihad after their goalless draw. They dominated the game in an attacking sense and while coach Rudi Garcia was left talking about the Tigers’ defensive approach, his team had the possession, two-thirds of it, to win.

The standard of chances could have been better and the French boss was left to lament the absence of Pity Martinez with the Argentine playmaker expected to be out injured for the next month. Without him, there were chances created and almost 20 goal attempts but none of sufficient quality despite the best efforts of Abdulrahman Ghareeb, who had an impressive game.

Yet with Al-Ittihad in this mood and determined to keep a clean sheet, there are going to be a lot of frustrated teams this season when they play the Tigers. You have to take the chances that come your way and on this occasion, Al-Nassr just weren’t clinical enough but have four winnable games before their derby with Al-Hilal.

3. Al-Hilal fall to shock defeat to super Al-Taawoun

Before Sunday’s 2-1 defeat to Al-Taawoun, Al-Hilal had played 20 league games in 2022 and lost just one, winning an amazing 18. This season there had been four wins from four without a single goal conceded. This consistency means that all have become accustomed to such excellence and the prospect of defeat was rarely entertained.

There was a similar shock back in May when they lost 1-0 to Al-Feiha only to bounce back to take 30 points from the next 30. This could well be just another blip. On another day, Al-Hilal who had 50 percent more possession and shots would have won.

But the headlines should not be all about the defending champions as Al-Taawoun deserve plenty of plaudits. A team that just escaped relegation last season had taken eight points from the first four games. Now it is 11 from five as they sit in fourth.

The spirit is there, as is, increasingly, the confidence. When Michael opened the scoring for Al-Hilal, finishing a fine move with a flashing low shot just before the half hour, it seemed as if another regulation win for the Riyadh giants was coming. However, Sumayhan Al-Nabit leveled just before the break after Abdullah Al-Mayouf came for a cross and did not collect.

Then when star striker Leandre Tawamba was sent off after 65 minutes, it looked over once again for Al-Taawoun, but nine minutes later, Fahad Al-Rashidi grabbed what turned out to be the winner. It was a stunning result.

4. Injury problems and solutions for Al-Hilal

Coach Ramon Diaz has similar worries to national team boss Herve Renard. Every team in Asia would miss two crucial attacking players of the class of Salman Al-Faraj and Salem Al-Dawsari. Full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani also was absent and then there were the likes of Jang Hyun-soo on the bench, weakening the defense still further.

But amid the gloom of the injuries and the result, there were two bright points on the bench in Abdulelah Al-Malki and Saleh Al-Shehri. The midfielder and attacker had been out with serious injuries for months and were looking unlikely to return to the national team squad in time for the World Cup.

Whether they go to Qatar is still touch and go as neither have played any competitive minutes yet. That will need to change very soon if they are to be named in the Saudi Arabian squad but Al-Hilal fans won’t care as two of their biggest domestic stars are near a return. And, with the team slipping to defeat, they may get a chance on the pitch sooner rather than later.

5. Moustafa Zeghba shows that it’s not all about the big boys

There was an amazing moment on Saturday as Damac defeated Al-Tai 2-0 to maintain their good start to the season. That is not the main story, however, as the second goal was one that will never be forgotten. There seemed to be no danger when the Algerian shotstopper picked up the ball in his own area.

But then his looping kick downfield bounced in the middle of the Al-Tai half. His opposite number Victor Braga was standing around the penalty spot and slowly realized what was happening, and it was the goalkeeper’s worst nightmare. There was nothing the Brazilian could do as the ball looped over his head and outstretched arm and into the net.

It meant that Zeghba becomes the fifth goalkeeper in the SPL’s history to get on the scoresheet and the first since 2020. While his smile was wide when he was congratulated by his delighted teammates, there must have been some sympathy for Braga.

World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz set for Middle East debut at Mubadala World Tennis Championship

World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz set for Middle East debut at Mubadala World Tennis Championship
Updated 03 October 2022

World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz set for Middle East debut at Mubadala World Tennis Championship

World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz set for Middle East debut at Mubadala World Tennis Championship
  • Winner of September’s US Open, the 19-year-old Spaniard — the youngest male to reach the top of the ATP rankings — is heading to Abu Dhabi this December

ABU DHABI: World No.1 Carlos Alcaraz is set make his Middle East debut this December at the 14th Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.

The Spaniard, who won the US Open last month and in doing so became the youngest male to reach the top of the ATP world rankings, will take to the court at the International Tennis Center at Zayed Sports City from Dec. 16-18.

Alcaraz, who turned 19 in May, will lead a line-up of six of the world’s best men’s players, and they will be joined by women’s World No.2 Ons Jabeur and British No.1 Emma Raducanu who will also face-off on Day 1 of the championship.

Alcaraz’s victory at Flushing Meadows in September was his sixth ATP Tour singles title and his fifth in 2022. Competing at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship for the first time, he will follow in the footsteps of superstars such as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and his hero — and five-time winner in the UAE capital — Rafael Nadal.

“I can’t wait to participate in the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi,” said Alcaraz, “I’ve seen a lot of players take part in the tournament, and everyone really looks forward to it.”

Championship owner Flash Entertainment confirmed two more of the six-player men’s line-up will be revealed in the coming days and reiterated its commitment to bringing the sport’s biggest and best players to the region. Alcaraz certainly fits that bill.

“World No.1, Carlos Alcaraz has had an incredible year after becoming the youngest ATP 500 champion in Rio de Janeiro back in February to winning the US Open a few weeks ago,” said John Lickrish, CEO, Flash Entertainment. “MWTC has a history of getting the top players to compete in Abu Dhabi; it’s a promise we’ve never had any qualms about making to the tennis fans in the region and we have fulfilled that once again. I have no doubt spectators will enjoy seeing Carlos compete here for the first time, and we are excited to see such a sensational young talent and new generation of superstar at the championship.”

Saudi Arabia’s 4-0 win over South Korea not enough for 2022 AFC Futsal Asian Cup progress

Saudi Arabia’s 4-0 win over South Korea not enough for 2022 AFC Futsal Asian Cup progress
Updated 03 October 2022

Saudi Arabia’s 4-0 win over South Korea not enough for 2022 AFC Futsal Asian Cup progress

Saudi Arabia’s 4-0 win over South Korea not enough for 2022 AFC Futsal Asian Cup progress
  • Green Falcons finished third in Group D on goal difference and miss out on quarterfinals at tournament in Kuwait

A comprehensive 4-0 win by Saudi Arabia over South Korea on Sunday night was still not enough to see the Green Falcons progress to the last eight of the 2022 AFC Futsal Asian Cup taking place at the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Hall in Kuwait.

The day’s other match in Group D saw Japan beat Vietnam 2-0.

The Green Falcons’ win in the final group fixture means they end their campaign with six points from nine, the same tally as Japan and Vietnam. However, Saudi finished third in the standings on goal difference.

Saudi Arabia had lost 3-1 to Vietnam in their second match of tournament on Friday when a win would have ensured progress from Group D to the quarterfinals, after they had launched their campaign on Monday with a 2-1 win over Japan.

The 16-team tournament kicked off on Sept. 27 and will conclude on Oct. 8.