All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins

Special All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins
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With Argentina as their first opponent in November, there is no time for inferiority for the Saudi national team. (AFP)
Special All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins
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A general view shows the Lusail Stadium, the 80,000-capacity venue that will host this year's World Cup final. (AFP)
Special All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins
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A view of Qatar's Lusail Stadium in Lusail city, around 20 km north of Doha. (Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy / AFP) 
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Updated 06 September 2022

All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins

All eyes on Arab football star power as countdown to FIFA World Cup Qatar begins
  • The presence of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar will be as much a cultural one as it is a sporting one
  • The Arab quartet have chance to deliver what their fans really want: Goals, wins and football to be proud of

DUBAI: On Nov. 22, Saudi Arabia will take on Argentina in their first match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. That is, Lionel Messi’s Argentina. There will be a temptation for the players to view the world’s greatest footballer with reverence, with (not misplaced) awe.

While coming up against the two-time world champions and Messi remains an honor, it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia’s French coach Herve Renard will allow his players to think of anything beyond getting a result at Lusail Stadium.

For Saudi Arabia, this is no time for an inferiority complex.

The first World Cup held on Arab soil will have a record-equaling four Arab nations, just as in Russia 2018.

The presence of (host) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia will be as much a cultural one as it is a sporting one.

While tens of thousands of fans will be descending on Doha from around the world, for once support for the Arab teams will not be restricted to a few flags scattered across the stadia, as has often been the case at previous tournaments.

Qatar is home to large Arab communities, many of whom come from countries that have not qualified to the World Cup but who, it is hoped, will throw their support behind their participating neighbors, while thousands more will be expected to make the short trip from nearby countries, or the slightly longer one from North Africa.

Arab teams should, perhaps for the first time ever at a World Cup, be firmly in the spotlight. More than ever before, Arab players have genuine star power.

Qatar’s squad, the reigning Asian champions, is made up of players who have been training from a very young age to take part in this tournament, progressing through Aspire Academy and age group teams for the ultimate goal.




The Qatari national football team. (Qatar Football Association via Twitter)

The world’s media outlets, some not always with good intentions, will likely scrutinize their every move and performance like never before.

In Al-Hilal’s trio — Salman Al-Faraj, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yasser Al-Shahrani — Saudi Arabia will have three of Asia’s finest players, as shown by the leading roles they played in their club’s recent AFC Champions League triumphs.

Meanwhile, Morocco and Tunisia have for years had squads bolstered by stars who play in some of Europe’s top leagues and who are recognizable to fans around the world.




Tunisia's players pose for a group picture during the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 quarter final football match between Tunisia and Oman in Ar-Rayyan on December 10, 2021. (AFP)

It is a far cry from some of the earlier World Cup participations by Arab nations, which were treated with barely concealed condescension by pundits and commentators.

Emirati players who took part in the 1990 World Cup in Italy spoke of the utter lack of knowledge foreign journalists had of the UAE at that point in time.

Often, too, teams did themselves no favors, as with Kuwait in 1982 and Iraq four years later. On the pitch, as off it, those days should be consigned to the past.

Only eight Arab teams have reached the World Cup finals since the first tournament took place in 1930: Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, Iraq, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Remarkably, until the hosts take on Ecuador in Qatar 2022’s opening match on Nov. 20, Saudi Arabia remain the last Arab debutants at the World Cup. No new team from the region has managed to qualify since the Green Falcons reached the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the US.




Morocco's players line up behind their national flag during the Africa Cup of Nations 2021 quarter-final football match with Egypt in Yaounde, Cameroon, on January 30, 2022. (AFP)

This means the Arab world has had to rely on the same clutch of nations to carry their hopes over the last three decades. Saudi Arabia went on to play in four more tournaments since their first appearance, while the North African trio of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia regularly qualify for the finals from the African confederation.

These four nations — Algeria’s shock elimination notwithstanding — no longer dream of qualification but expect it.

With that comes, or should come, the responsibility of performing at a consistently higher level — and winning. The novelty of rubbing shoulders with the world’s best is no longer enough.

When Saudi Arabia take on Messi and his team at the World Cup, the odds, not surprisingly, will be stacked against them.

But then again, that was also the case on June 29, 1994, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. Having earlier lost to the Netherlands and beaten Morocco, the Saudi team went into their final group match against Belgium, still with a chance of progressing to the knockout stages at their first ever World Cup. The bad news was that it was against a formidable Belgium team.




Saudi Arabia's Ahmed Madani tries to stop Swedish striker Kennet Andersson during their World Cup football match on July 3, 1994, in Dallas, Texas. (AFP file)

What happened next would go down as one of the country’s greatest sporting moments, and certainly the most iconic.

Only five minutes into the match, Saudi Arabia’s No. 10 Saeed Al-Owairan received the ball deep in his own half and embarked on a sensational run that laid waste to the Belgian defense, before slotting the ball past the advancing goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme.

It was instantly one of the most spectacular goals in World Cup history, worthy of mention alongside Diego Maradona’s legendary run and finish against England in Mexico in 1986 and Roberto Baggio’s brilliant solo effort for hosts Italy against Czechoslovakia in 1990.




Saeed-Al-Owairan. (AFP)

Al-Owairan’s moment of magic was enough to secure a famous 1-0 win for Saudi and qualification to the round of 16, where, after a valiant effort in the scorching midday heat of Dallas, they went down 3-1 to eventual semifinalists Sweden.

Things would never be better for Saudi Arabia at the World Cup, despite four subsequent participations, the last of which was four years ago.

It is something that Renard and his players will look to put right in Qatar.




Saudi Arabia's players carry French coach Herve Renard in celebration after beating Australia in their 2022 Qatar World Cup Asian Qualifiers football match in Jeddah on March 29, 2022. (AFP)

Africa’s Arab nations have all been involved in memorable World Cup moments as well, though ones that very often ended in heartbreak.

In 1978, Tunisia, led by legendary coach Abdelmajid Chetali and the outstanding talent of Tarek Diab, defeated reigning CONCACAF Gold Cup champions Mexico 3-1 on their World Cup debut in Argentina.

It was the first-ever win by an Arab nation at the finals of the competition.

The Carthage Eagles even pulled off a 0-0 draw against reigning World Cup winners West Germany, but Tunisia’s Golden Generation just missed out on progress to the last eight.




Algeria's players perk themselves up ahead of the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 group D football match with Lebanon at the Al-Janoub Stadium in Al-Wakrah, Qatar, on Dec.4, 2021. (AFP)

Four years later in Spain, Algeria provided one of the World Cup’s greatest-ever shocks when they beat the mighty West Germans 2-1 in Gijon, a result made all the sweeter for the disrespect that the European players and coach had shown to their African opponents in the days before the match.

But Algeria’s participation would end in controversial circumstances when West Germany beat Austria (only) 1-0 in the infamous “Disgrace of Gijon” match, which ensured the European neighbors qualified at the expense of the Arab nation.

The fallout from the scandal led to the stipulation that the last group matches would kick off at the same time to avoid collusion in the future. It was little consolation for the Desert Warriors, who nonetheless returned home as heroes.

But one wonders how such a blatant act of gamesmanship would play out today with blanket, unforgiving coverage and an army of social media users waiting to pounce.

Then there was Morocco’s second World Cup participation in Mexico, 1986. Expected to head home early after being placed in a “Group of Death” with England, Poland and Portugal, the Atlas Lions instead stormed to the top of the group with an astonishing 3-1 win over Portugal in their last match.




General view of Qatar's Lusail stadium during the volunteers orientation event for the World Cup Qatar 2022. (REUTERS/Mohammed Dabbous)

In the round of 16, Morocco went toe-to-toe with eventual finalists West Germany but succumbed to a late, late winner by Lothar Matthaus. Another tale of so near, yet so far for an Arab nation.

The weight of such history can be paralyzing, but the Arab quartet have a chance of changing the narrative and making their fans proud in Qatar.

And what do these fans want? Nothing more than what every other supporter around the world wants: Goals, wins and football to be proud of. No more excuses.

 


New look for Formula E season 9 as Gen3 era set to begin

New look for Formula E season 9 as Gen3 era set to begin
Updated 18 sec ago

New look for Formula E season 9 as Gen3 era set to begin

New look for Formula E season 9 as Gen3 era set to begin
  • World’s best electric race car arrives for pre-season testing in Valencia next month
  • India, South Africa and Brazil to host races for the first time, as Maserati and McLaren debut in Mexico City on Jan. 14

LONDON: Formula E has unveiled a fresh new look ahead of season nine of the ABB FIA World Championship, with the debut of the Gen3 car accompanied by new races, cities, teams and sporting formats.

The Gen3 — the fastest, lightest, most powerful and efficient electric race car ever built — will make its competitive debut in round one in Mexico City on Jan. 14, following pre-season testing next month in Valencia.

The championship will continue with three new cities hosting Formula E races for the first time: Hyderabad, India (round four on Feb. 11); Cape Town, South Africa (round five on Feb. 25) and Sao Paulo, Brazil (round six on March 25).

McLaren and Maserati are new to the Formula E grid next season. They will join some of the biggest names in motorsport including Jaguar, Porsche and Nissan among the 11 teams and 22 drivers competing for world titles.

Sporting regulation updates include a return to racing over laps; rookie drivers taking a seat for teams in FP1 sessions; and a plan to introduce a 30-second 4 kilowatt-hours “Attack Charge” boost at select races, made possible through the development of the most advanced EV battery in the world today.


Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 

Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 
Updated 29 November 2022

Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 

Swiss loss sets up enticing rematch with Serbia 
  • Group G game between Switzerland and Serbia has been one to keep an eye on
  • It's not just because of the talented players on both teams, but because of the political tensions they brought on the field

DOHA: Switzerland’s loss made their upcoming World Cup rematch all the more enticing, and with a lot more on the line.

Ever since the match schedule was made in April, the Group G game between Switzerland and Serbia has been one to keep an eye on. Not just because of the talented players on both teams, but because of the political tensions they brought on the field when they met at the last World Cup.

Four years ago in Russia, Switzerland captain Granit Xhaka celebrated his goal against Serbia by making a double-headed eagle with his hands — thumbs representing the heads of the two eagles, fingers fanned to look like feathers. The figure is considered to be an Albanian nationalist symbol.

Xherdan Shaqiri added another goal in the final minute of the game, and did the same thing with his hands as the Swiss won 2-1 in the second of the three group matches.

Xhaka and Shaqiri both have ethnic Albanian heritage and family ties to Kosovo. They were teenagers growing up in Switzerland when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, something the Serbs still don’t recognize 14 years later.

Both players were fined by FIFA during the tournament, and the government of Albania opened a bank account for people to contribute toward paying the 10,000 Swiss franc ($10,500) penalties.

On Friday, only one of the two teams will be able to advance to the round of 16 in Qatar. Brazil, who beat the Swiss 1-0 on Monday and defeated Serbia 2-0 last Thursday, have already assured themselves of a spot in the knockout round.

The Swiss likely need only a draw at Stadium 974, and Shaqiri should be available to play after sitting out the match against Brazil with a muscle injury.

Xhaka, now 30 and a mature leader for his country, brushed aside the controversial match from four years ago.

“(There’s) nothing in the history behind these two games,” the Arsenal midfielder said. “We are Switzerland, they are Serbia, that’s it. We are here to play football — them, us as well.”

Still, the Serbian delegation at this year’s World Cup has already made the politics of Kosovo an issue.

Serbia’s locker room ahead of their opening game against Brazil displayed a national flag with territory that included Kosovo and the slogan “No Surrender.” FIFA opened a disciplinary case against the Serbian soccer federation on Saturday.

The Kosovo Soccer Federation formally complained to FIFA after a photograph circulated and the country’s sports minister, Hajjrulla Ceku, described the image as using the World Cup to promote “hateful, xenophobic and genocidal messages.”

The Swiss advanced to the round of 16 in 2018 after a draw with Costa Rica in their final group match, while the Serbs were eliminated after losing to Brazil. This time, the teams go head-to-head in their final group game.

“Of course, the history is the history,” said Switzerland goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who also played against Serbia four years ago in Kaliningrad. “But in this moment it will be the game that is important.

“We know this game already,” Sommer added. “We had it in Russia.”


Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign

Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign
Updated 29 November 2022

Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign

Juventus board of directors and president Agnelli resign
  • The stunning move follows a preliminary investigation by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office into fraudulent accounting

TURIN, Italy: Juventus’ board of directors and president Andrea Agnelli resigned en masse on Monday.

The stunning move follows a preliminary investigation by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office into fraudulent accounting, of alleged hidden payments to players.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Juventus said 23 players agreed to reduce their salary for four months to help the club through the crisis. But its claimed the players gave up only one month’s salary.

A shareholders meeting rescheduled for Dec. 27 was postponed again to Jan. 18 to choose a new board.
 


Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury

Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury
Updated 29 November 2022

Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury

Tiger Woods withdraws from his tournament with foot injury
  • The Hero World Challenge was to be the start of a December in golf ruled by Woods

NASSAU, Bahamas: Tiger Woods was out before he was officially back, withdrawing Monday from his Hero World Challenge with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

The Hero World Challenge was to be the start of a December in golf ruled by Woods, who also has a made-for-television match next weekend, followed by the PNC Championship with his 13-year-old son on Dec. 17-18.

Two of those are still on his schedule. The foot injury was a surprise and is a big setback for those who haven’t seen Woods play since July at St. Andrews. The Hero World Challenge has network coverage on NBC for the weekend.

“In preparation and practice for this week’s Hero World Challenge, I’ve developed plantar fasciitis in my right foot, which is making it difficult to walk,” Woods said on Twitter. “After consulting with my doctors and trainers, I have decided to withdraw this week and focus on my hosting duties. My plan is still to compete in The Match and the PNC Championship.”

The Match is Dec. 10 with Rory McIlroy as his partner competing in a 12-hole match against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

Woods has played only three tournaments this year because of a right leg weakened by a February 2021 car crash outside Los Angeles that shattered so many bones that Woods said doctors contemplated amputation.

A year ago in the Bahamas, he hit drivers on the back end of the range at Albany Golf Club, sparking speculation he might return. He played the PNC Championship with son Charlie and they finished second by one shot.

Woods then played the Masters, where he finished all four rounds at Augusta National, a tough walk with healthy legs. He made the cut in the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, only to withdraw after the third round.

His last appearance was the British Open at St. Andrews, where he missed the cut.

Woods has said he would have a limited schedule going forward, and this year was an example of what to expect. The World Challenge would have been one of the easier walks on the flat terrain of Albany.

The 20-man field features 15 of the top 20 players in the world. Woods was replaced by Austria-born Sepp Straka, who went to Georgia. Earlier, Hideki Matsuyama withdrew with injury and was replaced by Corey Conners.

Woods is No. 1,277 in the world ranking and is exempt as the tournament host. Being replaced by Straka (No. 29) means the entire 20-man field is among the top 33 in the ranking. The strength of field increases even as TV ratings are sure to take a hit.


Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs

Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs
Updated 29 November 2022

Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs

Fernandes double sends Portugal into World Cup knock-outs
  • Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes scored a cross-cum-shot nine minutes into the second half and then added an injury-time penalty
  • The match also featured the first pitch invader of the Qatar tournament — the man carried messages of support for Ukraine and Iranian women and had a rainbow flag

DOHA: Bruno Fernandes scored twice to give Portugal a 2-0 victory over Uruguay on Monday and send them into the knock-out stages of the World Cup alongside France and Brazil.
The Manchester United midfielder scored a cross-cum-shot nine minutes into the second half and then added an injury-time penalty following a handball by Jose Maria Gimenez.
The match at Doha’s spectacular 89,000-capacity Lusail Stadium also featured the first pitch invader of the Qatar tournament — the man carried messages of support for Ukraine and Iranian women and had a rainbow flag.
With Portugal already through, Uruguay must now beat Ghana in their final Group H match to stand any chance of also progressing.
Both sides made three changes from their opening matches, with Portugal bringing in veteran Pepe for the injured Danilo Pereira, who suffered cracked ribs in training.
Pepe became the third-oldest outfield player in World Cup history.
Portugal dominated the first half, hogging the ball and creating several chances, but without ever testing Uruguay goalkeeper Sergio Rochet.
Uruguay’s forward, Edinson Cavani and Darwin Nunez were starved of the ball but the South Americans still had the best opportunity of the first period.
Rodrigo Bentancur picked the ball up in his own half and surged forward, slipping between two defenders to find himself one-on-one with goalkeeper Diogo Costa, who spread himself well to save the midfielder’s shot.
Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo was largely anonymous in the first 45 minutes but did delight fans with a shoulder pass to pick out William Carvalho, who volleyed over.
The main drama came after the break.
Moments after a pitch invader ran onto the pitch carrying an LGBTQ rainbow flag and with a message supporting Ukraine and Iranian women on his T-shirt, only to be spectacularly tackled by security, Portugal went in front.
Fernandes created space for himself on the left and curled an inswinging cross into the mixer, with Ronaldo breaking the offside trap to attempt a glancing header.
As the ball nestled in the goal, Ronaldo wheeled away in celebration but FIFA decided he had not touched the ball, thus denying him a ninth World Cup goal, which would have put him level with Portuguese great Eusebio.
Uruguay coach Diego Alonso threw on forward Maxi Gomez and Luis Suarez as the South Americans belatedly began to exert some pressure, and both came close to an equalizer.
Gomez’s rasping drive from 20 yards came back off the post with Costa beaten, while Suarez hit the side netting from close range.
With the 90 minutes almost up, Fernandes nutmegged Gimenez, whose trailing hand diverted the ball away from the midfielder and prevented him from finding himself one-on-one with Rochet.
Iranian referee Alireza Faghani awarded the spot-kick after a VAR check and Fernandes sent Rochet the wrong way after his signature hop, skip run-up.
He then almost completed a hat-trick but hit the post from 20 yards.