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.

 


India to host MotoGP for first time in 2023: organizers

India to host MotoGP for first time in 2023: organizers
Updated 58 min 45 sec ago

India to host MotoGP for first time in 2023: organizers

India to host MotoGP for first time in 2023: organizers
  • Indian authorities hope the event will boost foreign investment

BURIRAM: India will stage a MotoGP race for the first time in 2023, organizers said on Friday, at the same track that once hosted Formula One.
The race is scheduled to take place at Buddh International Circuit in Uttar Pradesh, to the south of New Delhi.
The track has already played host to Formula One, staging three F1 grands prix between 2011 and 2013.
“We have a lot of fans in India and we’re excited to be able to bring the sport to them,” Carmelo Ezpeleta, chief executive of MotoGP organizers Dorna, said in a statement.
India represents a key market to expand the sport, organizers said, citing a population of 1.4 billion people and more than 200 million motorcycles.
“It’s a matter of great pride for Uttar Pradesh to host such a global event,” Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh chief minister, said.
Indian authorities hope the event will boost foreign investment.


Arsenal, Spurs seek to prove title credentials in north London derby

Arsenal, Spurs seek to prove title credentials in north London derby
Updated 30 September 2022

Arsenal, Spurs seek to prove title credentials in north London derby

Arsenal, Spurs seek to prove title credentials in north London derby
  • While Tottenham’s rise underlines Conte’s managerial acumen, it is arguably Arteta who has done the more impressive work this term
  • Wenger, who led Arsenal to their most recent title in 2004, believes his former team should already be regarded as title contenders

LONDON: Arsenal and Tottenham will be fighting for much more than local bragging rights on Saturday as the north London rivals aim to prove they are serious contenders for the Premier League title.

As top-flight action returns following the international break, Arsenal sit top of the table after an unexpectedly strong start, while unbeaten Tottenham are just one point behind in third place.

With Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United still recovering their equilibrium after turbulent starts to the season, a path has opened up for the north London clubs to gatecrash the title race.

If a title challenger was expected to emerge from either end of the Seven Sisters Road, it was Tottenham who were the more likely candidates after snatching a top-four finish from their bitter rivals and neighbors in dramatic fashion last term.

Arsenal were in pole position to qualify for the Champions League when they moved four points clear of Tottenham with just three games left.

But Mikel Arteta’s side blew their chance as a disastrous 3-0 defeat at Tottenham was followed by a devastating loss against Newcastle, ruining their hopes of returning to the Champions League for the first time since the 2016/17 season.

Buoyed by pipping Arsenal, Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy bowed to Antonio Conte’s demands, sanctioning a close-season spending spree that further enhanced the feelgood factor around the club.

With Conte refusing to let his players rest on their laurels, Tottenham have continued to progress in their second season under the demanding Italian.

Conte showed his ruthless side in Tottenham’s last game when he dropped Heung-min Son after his eight-match goalless run and was rewarded with a hat trick from the South Korean after sending him on as a substitute in the 6-2 rout of Leicester.

While Tottenham’s rise underlines Conte’s managerial acumen, it is arguably Arteta who has done the more impressive work this term.

Arsenal’s implosion in the final week of last season could have been a hammer blow to Arteta’s gradual rebuild of a club mired in mediocrity since well before the end of Arsene Wenger’s reign.

The eccentric side to Arteta’s personality was on display during the “All or Nothing” television documentary that captured the Spaniard’s fight to steer the club through troubled waters last season.

But Arteta’s quirks should not obscure the astute way he has infused Arsenal with energy and enthusiasm by promoting a group of talented youngsters, while also shipping out Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang following disciplinary problems.

Revitalized by the recent signings of Gabriel Jesus and Oleksandr Zinchenko, as well as the development of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal have enjoyed the benefits of a relatively benign fixture list so far.

Wenger, who led Arsenal to their most recent title in 2004, believes his former team should already be regarded as title contenders.

“I would say they have a good chance because I don’t see any super-dominating team,” Wenger told Sky Sports. “I believe it is a good opportunity to do it this season.”

However, Arsenal’s only match against a top-four rival this season ended in a 3-1 defeat at Manchester United.

Arteta needs a statement victory to show there is substance to the surge that gave Arsenal their best start to a season since 2004, courtesy of a five-game winning run.

History is in Arsenal’s favor, with Tottenham on a run of 11 top-flight visits to the Emirates Stadium without a win since their last success in 2010.

Yet Arsenal, beaten only once in their past 29 home league games against Tottenham, must find a way to subdue long-time nemesis Harry Kane.

Tottenham striker Kane has scored a record 13 goals in 17 north London derby appearances, including two in their most recent meeting in May.

 

FIXTURES:

Saturday (1400 GMT unless stated)

Arsenal vs. Tottenham (1130), Bournemouth vs. Brentford, Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea, Fulham vs. Newcastle, Liverpool vs. Brighton, Southampton vs. Everton, West Ham vs. Wolves (1630)

Sunday

Manchester City vs. Manchester Utd (1300), Leeds vs. Aston Villa (1530)

Monday

Leicester vs. Nottingham Forest (1900)


Lin, Atthaya shine at LPGA Volunteers Classic

Lin, Atthaya shine at LPGA Volunteers Classic
Updated 30 September 2022

Lin, Atthaya shine at LPGA Volunteers Classic

Lin, Atthaya shine at LPGA Volunteers Classic
  • The 26-year-old from Guangzhou, chasing her first win on the US LPGA Tour, vaulted into the lead with a brilliant eagle on the par-5 17th hole that took her to 6 under

LOS ANGELES: China’s Lin Xiyu grabbed a one-shot lead from in-form Thai teenager Atthaya Thitikul in the opening round of the LPGA Tour’s Volunteers of America Classic in Texas on Thursday.

Lin fired a 6-under-par 65 to head the field at The Colony Golf Club, north of Dallas, in a low-scoring first round.

The 26-year-old from Guangzhou, chasing her first win on the US LPGA Tour, vaulted into the lead with a brilliant eagle on the par-5 17th hole that took her to 6 under.

Lin’s round included five birdies, with the lone blemish a bogey on the par-4 fourth.

The 19-year-old Atthaya, meanwhile, coming off her second LPGA Tour victory at the NW Arkansas Championship last weekend, had to settle for a 5-under 66 after a bogey on her final hole of the day.

Teeing off on the back nine, Atthaya surged up the leaderboard with a hat trick of birdies on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes to make the turn at four under.

Two more birdies on the first and eighth holes left her at six under, before a bogey on the ninth dropped her down to a share of second alongside Lizette Salas, who also posted a five-under-par 66.

England’s Charley Hull, Thailand’s Moriya Jutanugarn, Canada’s Maddie Szeryk and American Lexi Thompson were tied a further shot back on 4 under after shooting 67s.

Thompson had seemed set for share of second place but saw an otherwise flawless round spoiled with a bogey on her final hole.

Three players, including Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn and France’s Celine Boutier were tied in eighth place after shooting 3-under 68s.


Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors

Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors
Updated 30 September 2022

Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors

Big in Japan: Warriors-Wizards games to woo NBA fans, sponsors
  • The financial rewards are as clear as the patch of Japanese online retailer Rakuten on the jerseys that Curry and the Warriors will wear
  • Ogura thinks the investments being made by Japanese companies for these games is worth it given the NBA’s strong appeal to the younger generation

TOKYO: Before Stephen Curry makes a single 3-pointer, before Rui Hachimura gets his first ovation from Japanese fans who came to cheer one of their own, the NBA Japan Games are already a huge win in one regard.

The money.

Big money is riding on — and getting spent on — the NBA’s most recent foray into Japan, which has the reigning champion Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards set to play a pair of preseason games there on Friday and Sunday. Every seat inside Saitama Super Arena has been sold, and the league has more marketing partners for games in Japan than ever before.

The financial rewards are as clear as the patch of Japanese online retailer Rakuten on the jerseys that Curry and the Warriors will wear.

“These are the Japanese people who grew up on Michael Jordan,” said Junya Ogura, senior manager at Japanese automaker Nissan’s brand and media strategy department. “We are banking on a return that will come in the future.”

Nissan Motor Co., which sponsors Japanese professional baseball and soccer, had a high-profile deal with tennis superstar Naomi Osaka which recently ended. It is sponsoring NBA games for the first time.

Ogura thinks the investments being made by Japanese companies for these games is worth it given the NBA’s strong appeal to the younger generation, a trend that’s backed up by marketing studies. Nissan is sharing the role of presenting partner for the games with Rakuten, which has had a lucrative relationship with the Warriors — at least $20 million a year, largely to have its patch on Golden State’s jerseys — since 2017.

Rakuten also has a sponsorship deal with Curry, part of his massive off-court empire. Rakuten also sponsors Japanese baseball and soccer and holds the Japan Open tennis championships, plus live-streams NBA games. And that was one of the primary reasons why the NBA returned to Japan for a pair of preseason games between Houston and Toronto in 2019, ending what was a 16-year drought between games in that country.

“Excited to be here,” Curry said.

The tickets cost up to 420,000 yen ($2,900) each for courtside “VIP” seats. Both Friday and Sunday games are sold out at the Saitama Super Arena, where the US won the gold medal at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The massive arena was largely empty for those games, tickets unable to be sold because of the virus.

Now, every seat has been grabbed. Plus, the NBA has drawn 15 marketing partners to support the preseason games in Japan, including American Express, Hennessy, NEC and Nike, and now has 19 marketing and promotional partners in Japan.

“Obviously it’s about the money,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based sports analyst at Pinnacle Advertising.

“Building the fan base in Asia, and everywhere else in the world, results in more sponsorship dollars, increased media rights and greater merchandise sales.”

The NBA may have more global appeal than other US sports, being easier to understand than football, for instance, according to Dorfman, who has worked in Japan.

“Every team has foreign-born players on their rosters, and the league’s top stars are cultural icons, trendsetters, and social media giants. The game is cool,” he said.

That translates not only into sponsorship money but also youngsters spending on sneakers and other fashion items and merchandising.

Between 1990 and 2003, the NBA staged 12 regular-season games in Japan. The courtship between the NBA and the Japanese fan — not to mention Japanese companies and NBA fans globally — is now fully underway again.

A giant 3D display at a Tokyo street-crossing depicts Curry and other NBA stars as “manga,” or Japanese comic, characters. The NBA’s Japanese-language social media accounts have amassed more than 1.6 million followers.

While the players are in town, they will be taking part in various fan events. Besides Hachimura, the NBA now has another Japanese player, Yuta Watanabe, who is with the Brooklyn Nets.

The NBA is also excited about the potential for women’s basketball. Japanese women were the silver medalists in the last Olympics. Rui Machida, an Olympian, signed earlier this year with the WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

“Our fan base is growing,” said NBA Asia managing director Ramez Sheikh. “There is real momentum around basketball in Japan, and it’s a real important market for the NBA.”

Wizards officials acknowledged they were surprised by the big reaction signing Hachimura drew from Japan. They suddenly saw more Japanese in the stands, tour buses started coming, and Japanese media showed up in big numbers.

“It was all about Rui,” said Hunter Lochman, chief marketing officer at Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Wizards. “It’s fast-paced. It’s high scoring. It’s a great sport and it’s a global sport.”

Besides Japan, a pair of preseason games are scheduled for Abu Dhabi this season, with the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks going there early next month. Regular-season games will be played in Mexico City in December and Paris in January.

Kyle Kuzma, a Wizards forward, said he was excited about being in Japan for the first time.

He already had sushi, planned to go shopping and was approached by a fan on the street, who gave him chopsticks with his name and the name of his girlfriend etched onto them.

“This is a big moment,” Kuzma said. “It’s a big stage.”


Neymar backs Bolsonaro in Brazil vote

Neymar backs Bolsonaro in Brazil vote
Updated 30 September 2022

Neymar backs Bolsonaro in Brazil vote

Neymar backs Bolsonaro in Brazil vote
  • Neymar, 30, had previously stayed out of the fray for Sunday’s polarizing election, in which Lula leads in opinion polls

RIO DE JANEIRO: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro got a celebrity endorsement Thursday for his re-election bid from football superstar Neymar, who posted a video on TikTok of himself dancing to a pro-Bolsonaro campaign song.

Grinning, the Paris Saint-Germain and Brazil striker, arguably Brazil’s most famous celebrity, flashed the No. 22 — Bolsonaro’s candidate number — with his fingers as he rocked out to the electronic dance jingle, three days from the far-right incumbent’s election showdown against leftist ex-president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“Vote, vote, and press ‘confirm’ for 22, that’s Bolsonaro,” goes the song, a reference to Brazil’s electronic voting machines — which the president alleges, without evidence, are plagued by fraud.

Bolsonaro wasted no time retweeting the Neymar seal of approval.

Neymar, 30, had previously stayed out of the fray for Sunday’s polarizing election, in which Lula leads in opinion polls.

But he sent a video message to Bolsonaro Wednesday after the president visited the footballer’s charitable children’s foundation.

“Hello, President Bolsonaro... I wanted to thank you for your illustrious visit,” he said on Instagram after Bolsonaro visited the Neymar Jr. Institute, a non-profit organization the football star founded in 2014.

It runs educational, cultural and sports programs for 3,000 underprivileged children.

Bolsonaro backers have adopted the yellow-and-green jersey of Brazil’s national team as a symbol of support for the president, along with the Brazilian flag.

Both men are vocal about their Christianity.