5 things learned from Arab football troubles in Asian World Cup qualifiers

It was good news for Saudi Arabia, with UAE left to fight another day while other nations have to wait until 2026 for another shot at the World Cup. (AFP)
It was good news for Saudi Arabia, with UAE left to fight another day while other nations have to wait until 2026 for another shot at the World Cup. (AFP)
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Updated 01 April 2022

5 things learned from Arab football troubles in Asian World Cup qualifiers

It was good news for Saudi Arabia, with UAE left to fight another day while other nations have to wait until 2026 for another shot at the World Cup. (AFP)
  • While Saudi Arabia are heading to Qatar 2022, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Oman are out and UAE must negotiate a tough playoff route to progress

DUBAI: The dust has just about settled on Asian qualification, where the road to Qatar was the longest. Five Arab nations made the final 12 that contested the third round. It was not unexpected that the only one to secure an automatic berth was Saudi Arabia. The other five have plenty to take on board and think about in the coming months.

United Arab Emirates finished third in Group A, 11 points behind South Korea in second, and now head to the playoffs. Iraq in fourth, Syria in fifth and Lebanon in sixth are all out. Oman are also eliminated after they took fourth in Group B with 14 points.

1. UAE’s initial focus is short term

There are plenty of examples of teams struggling in qualification and then shining at World Cups (such as Brazil ahead of the 2002 tournament which they won), and vice versa (Germany won all 10 games on the road to Russia only to exit at the first round). The World Cup is more about the destination than the journey itself and for the United Arab Emirates, the indifferent performances along the way and the various coaching changes will be forgiven and forgotten if the Whites can find a way past Australia and then Peru in June’s playoffs.

That is what it is all about now for new coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena. The Argentine, with success in the UAE league, is the kind of appointment that the federation should be making and giving time to whatever happens in the playoffs. The focus should not yet be about building a team for the future but about doing whatever it takes to beat Australia and then Peru. Winning ugly is not a problem for now. If the UAE can get to the World Cup, then it could be a game-changer for the country.

2. Syria’s youngsters show the way

Syria will look back at the campaign with disappointment, but also with a little optimism for the future. The Qasioun Eagles reached the playoff ahead of the World Cup four years ago, but were never in the running this time. Like Iraq, playing home games overseas does not help, but their tactics have been too conservative with too much reliance on stars such as Omar Al-Somah and Omar Khribin, who are either past their best or have struggled for form.

There are reasons not to be too downcast. Somehow Syria managed to lose 3-2 to Lebanon in October in a game that they really should have won. The lineups for the final two games had a much fresher look and this time there was a fine 3-0 win against Lebanon and then a creditable 1-1 draw with an Iraq team that was desperate to win.

With Alaa Al-Dali, midfielder Kamel Hmeisheh and others stepping up, the final games showed the direction in which Syria should go in the coming months and years.

3: Iraq need to settle on a coach and a style

While the UAE have pressing concerns, Iraq have time to sit back and take stock. Missing out on the playoffs may be painful, but this is an opportunity now for a reset with the national team. The Lions of Mesopotamia go through coaches and styles at a rapid rate. There has long been a lack of joined-up thinking in Baghdad, and now the 2026 World Cup, when Asia’s representation doubles and Iraq have a real chance of making it, is no longer that far in the future as qualification starts next year.

The federation needs to think about what kind of football Iraq should play at all levels — not just for the next few months, but for the coming years. The next coach does not have to be a big name and does not have to be local, but has to spend time in the country watching football at all levels. Then, at least, accusations of local members of the coaching staff spreading misinformation about certain players to the foreign coaches will be avoided, and there may be more of a collective sense of purpose. There should also be realistic ideas of what Iraq’s football identity should be. It is easier said than done, but Iraq have too much talent to continue bumbling from coach to coach, game to game.

4. Lebanon should be proud, but were held back by other events

Lebanon have not won many friends around Asia for the way they play the game against bigger nations, but the Cedars deserve much more respect, or at least understanding of their situation. With all kinds of economic, social and political issues in the country, the national team provides some rare hope, and the money it generates from reaching the final stages of qualification helps keep the local leagues afloat.

The spirit of the team is second to none and that is the way it needs to be. The way Lebanon play against bigger boys such as Iran and South Korea — running down the clock, breaking up the game and generally being difficult to play against — is not always fun to watch, but it is understandable.

It is, however, hard to see where the team goes from here, given the state of the local league and the country in general. This campaign should bring the team together and the search for talent in the country’s diaspora should continue. But this may be as good as it gets for Lebanon, for a while at least.

5. Oman need to keep Branko

The fact that Oman collected 14 points from the group to finish in fourth, just a point behind Australia, was more than impressive. It was a fantastic achievement and it has not received the attention it deserved. Oman have always played tidy football but coach Branko Ivankovic has taken them to the next level. The former Iran boss has not only ensured that the team is as organized and well drilled as possible, but also has been getting the best out of established players like Abdullah Fawaz, as well as improving young talents such as Zahir Al-Aghbari and Arshad Al-Alawi.

All the players know what is expected of them and vice versa, and are increasingly comfortable in the system. Not just that, there is a growing feeling of confidence that means Oman can really kick on. The 2023 Asian Cup is a real opportunity and it makes sense that Ivankovic stays to keep guiding the team forward. The coach has already received offers from elsewhere, meaning that the men from Muscat need to move quickly.


Pope, Trippier help Newcastle grind out 0-0 draw at Brighton

Pope, Trippier help Newcastle grind out 0-0 draw at Brighton
Updated 58 min 16 sec ago

Pope, Trippier help Newcastle grind out 0-0 draw at Brighton

Pope, Trippier help Newcastle grind out 0-0 draw at Brighton
  • Pope racked up a second straight clean sheet since joining Newcastle
  • Newcastle struggled for clear openings despite high endeavor in searing heat

BRIGHTON, England: Nick Pope conjured two fine saves and Kieran Trippier made a goal-line clearance as Newcastle’s two England internationals helped the team grind out a 0-0 draw at Brighton in the Premier League on Saturday.
Pope racked up a second straight clean sheet since joining Newcastle from relegated Burnley, thwarting both Adam Lallana and Solly March at the Amex Stadium.
March thought he had scored with a low shot through a crowd of players in the first half, only for Trippier to clear off the line at the very last opportunity.
Brighton midfielder Pascal Gross then turned the ball the wrong side of the post near the end, after Kaoru Mitoma’s neat cutback.
Newcastle struggled for clear openings despite high endeavor in searing heat, with both teams still unbeaten after two Premier League outings. Newcastle opened with a win over Nottingham Forest and Brighton won at Manchester United.
Brighton increased their domination the longer the match wore on, but Graham Potter’s team was unable to strike again after last weekend’s 2-1 victory at United.


Manchester City earn second win by thrashing Bournemouth 4-0 in Premier League

Manchester City earn second win by thrashing Bournemouth 4-0 in Premier League
Updated 13 August 2022

Manchester City earn second win by thrashing Bournemouth 4-0 in Premier League

Manchester City earn second win by thrashing Bournemouth 4-0 in Premier League
  • Haaland was mostly crowded out by Bournemouth who sat deep with plenty of men behind the ball in a match that resembled an attack vs. defense training exercise

MANCHESTER: Erling Haaland might not hog all of Manchester City’s goals this season, after all.
Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden were City’s scorers — along with an own-goal — in a 4-0 win over Bournemouth in the Premier League on Saturday, with Haaland barely getting a sight on goal at Etihad Stadium.
The Norway striker scored both of City’s goals in their opening-weekend 2-0 win at West Ham but was mostly crowded out a week later as Bournemouth sat deep with plenty of men behind the ball in a match that resembled an attack vs. defense training exercise.
City’s midfielders reaped the benefits of the extra focus on Haaland.
Gundogan’s goal did involve City’s new star striker, with Haaland holding off his marker with his back to goal and clipping a ball through to the Germany midfielder. Gundogan’s left-footed finish found the bottom corner in the 19th for his 50th goal for City.
De Bruyne scored the pick of the goals, the playmaker cutting inside on a counterattack led by Foden in the 31st, beating a defender and bending his shot with the outside of his right foot into the far corner.
De Bruyne returned the favor for Foden six minutes later, slipping a brilliant pass through the legs of a defender and into the path of his teammate, who took a touch and fired in a deflected shot that beat goalkeeper Mark Travers.
Haaland’s best chance fell in the 73rd when he mishit a first-time shot wide from Jack Grealish’s cut-back. The striker was substituted moments later.
The scoring was completed by Jefferson Lerma, who unwittingly turned a cross from Joao Cancelo into his own net from inside Bournemouth’s six-yard box.
It was a wake-up call for Bournemouth after the promoted team started the season with a surprisingly comfortable 2-0 win over Aston Villa last weekend.
City manager Pep Guardiola again chose to start with Bernardo Silva on the bench. The Portugal midfielder has been linked with a move to Barcelona and didn’t start against West Ham, either.


Barcelona sells more assets to clear Lewandowski for opener

Barcelona sells more assets to clear Lewandowski for opener
Updated 13 August 2022

Barcelona sells more assets to clear Lewandowski for opener

Barcelona sells more assets to clear Lewandowski for opener
  • The troubled Spanish club were only able to ensure that their star signing will be available against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday
  • They sold 24.5% of their Barça Studios production hub to Orpheus Media in a deal worth $103 million

BARCELONA, Spain: Working against the clock, Barcelona sold off even more of their club assets on Friday so they could meet the Spanish league’s financial rules and clear Robert Lewandowski and other summer signings to play in their season opener.
The troubled Spanish club were only able to ensure that their star signing will be available against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday after they sold 24.5 percent of their Barça Studios production hub to Orpheus Media in a deal worth 100 million euros ($103 million).
That improved their financial balance enough to satisfy the Spanish league, which added Lewandowski and fellow newcomers Raphinha, Franck Kessié and Andreas Christensen as well as the recently renewed Ousmane Dembélé and Sergi Roberto to their list of eligible players.
But, by late Friday, the league had yet to declare eligible France defender Jules Koundé, who arrived to Barcelona from Sevilla last month. The club will still need to reduce their current salary load by selling one or more current players to register Koundé.
Last month Barcelona sold an initial 25 percent stake in their production hub to Socios.com, a blockchain provider, for another 100 million euros as well as 25 percent of their Spanish league television rights for the next 25 years for nearly 670 million euros ($689 million).
All told, the heavily indebted Catalan club has mortgaged their future for 870 million euros ($895 million) to sign Lewandowski, Raphinha and Koundé for a combined 160 million euros ($165 million). Kessié and Christensen arrived as free agents.
But the Spanish league has strict financial requirements that limit the amount clubs can spend on players’ salaries and transfers based on the clubs’ financial health. Despite efforts to reduce costs and pay down their debt, Barcelona still hold 1 billion euros ($1 billion) in debt and has seen their salary cap slashed by the league in recent seasons.
Earlier on Friday, coach Xavi Hernández said he was “optimistic” that he can have his new players available for the first game of the season.
“Everyone at the club is very optimistic,” Xavi said. “We have until two hours before the match.”
The club are also pushing to sell players with big salaries like Frenkie de Jong or players unwanted by Xavi such as Samuel Umtiti and Martin Braithwaite.
Orpheus Media is run by Catalan businessman Jaume Roures, the owner of Mediapro, a major television company involved in Spanish soccer but whose 2020 broadcast rights deal for the French league collapsed. Roures was a major financial backer of Barcelona club president Joan Laporta when he returned to run the financially troubled club in 2021.
Roures said on Friday that he was not sure if the money he paid Barcelona would be sufficient.
“The league won’t have any problems with this operation,” Roures told Cadena SER radio. “If the 100 million euros are enough, I don’t know. If it isn’t, the (necessary) amount must be close to that.”
Xavi also said that Barcelona may not be done signing new players, but that any arrivals would have to come after current players were sold. Barcelona are linked to interest in Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso, who would provide competition for Jordi Alba at left back.
Laporta at least was able to avoid the embarrassment of having Lewandowski watching from the Camp Nou stands on Saturday.


Ancelotti ‘surprised’ by Kroos absence from Ballon d’Or nominees

Ancelotti ‘surprised’ by Kroos absence from Ballon d’Or nominees
Updated 13 August 2022

Ancelotti ‘surprised’ by Kroos absence from Ballon d’Or nominees

Ancelotti ‘surprised’ by Kroos absence from Ballon d’Or nominees
  • New signing Antonio Rudiger is also on the list but there was no room for the German midfielder Kroos
  • "It surprises me a bit, because Kroos had a fantastic season," quipped Ancelotti in a press conference

MADRID: Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti on Saturday said he was surprised that German midfielder Toni Kroos did not feature on the list of 30 finalists for the Ballon d’Or.
Five members of the Champions League winning side were nominated on Friday in the shape of Thibault Cortois, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Vinicius Junior and favorite Karim Benzema.
New signing Antonio Rudiger is also on the list but there was no room for the German midfielder Kroos.
“It surprises me a bit, because Kroos had a fantastic season... But it’s true that it could be a problem if we named all the Real Madrid players, I can understand that,” quipped Ancelotti in a press conference ahead of Madrid’s Liga opener at Almeria on Sunday.
“But (Federico) Valverde, (Eder) Militao, (David) Alaba... all deserve to be there.
“All of them had a fantastic season. I’m not talking about winning the Ballon d’Or, but they deserve to be on the list.”
Ancelotti was particularly pleased with the inclusion of Brazilian forward Vinicius on the 30-strong list of nominees.
“He scored the winning goal in our 14th Champions League, he had an incredible season,” said the Italian.
“He doesn’t care if he finishes fourth or second. For the players, only victory matters. He will do better in the future. But unfortunately for Vini, this season, we already have the winner with us.”
Ancelotti was in little doubt, it seems, that French striker Benzema, who is hotly tipped to succeed would walk away with the award.
The Ballon d’Or will be awarded on October 17.
Real Madrid will kick off the defense of their La Liga title at newly-promoted Almería.
“We are feeling good, we have all the hope in the world as we start this season,” said Ancelotti, adding that “each game will be very difficult, starting tomorrow.”


Saudi weightlifter Siraj Al-Saleem wins 3 silvers at Islamic Solidarity Games

Saudi weightlifter Siraj Al-Saleem wins 3 silvers at Islamic Solidarity Games
Updated 13 August 2022

Saudi weightlifter Siraj Al-Saleem wins 3 silvers at Islamic Solidarity Games

Saudi weightlifter Siraj Al-Saleem wins 3 silvers at Islamic Solidarity Games
  • Kingdom’s handball team reaches semifinals after topping group

KONYA: Weightlifter Siraj Al-Saleem on Friday claimed three more medals for Saudi Arabia at the fifth edition of the Islamic Solidarity Games in Turkey.

Al-Saleem’s three silver medals came in the 61 kilogram division after he managed a lift of 123 kilograms in the Snatch category, 154 kilograms in the Clean and Jerk, and a points total of 277 to finish second overall.

Saudi’s medal tally on Friday night stood at 15, with one gold, 10 silvers and four bronzes.

Al-Saleem’s teammate Nawaf Al-Mazeedi finished seventh overall in the under-67 kilogram competition with a points total of 296 (136 in Snatch, 160 in Clean and Jerk).

In the women’s weightlifting competition, Saudi’s Al-Anoud Al-Shehri took sixth place in the 59 kilogram division with a total of 141 points, a new personal record.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia reached the semifinals of the handball competition after playing out a 27-27 draw with Qatar in their final group match.

With that result, the Kingdom qualified to the last four as group winners on goal difference, and will now face hosts Turkey on Saturday evening.

Qatar will meet Iran in the other semifinal.