Herve Renard looks to solve World Cup selection issues as Saudi face Ecuador in friendly 

Herve Renard looks to solve World Cup selection issues as Saudi face Ecuador in friendly 
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Herve Renard with his players at their training camp in Alicante, Spain. (SAFF)
Herve Renard looks to solve World Cup selection issues as Saudi face Ecuador in friendly 
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(SAFF)
Herve Renard looks to solve World Cup selection issues as Saudi face Ecuador in friendly 
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(SAFF)
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Updated 22 September 2022

Herve Renard looks to solve World Cup selection issues as Saudi face Ecuador in friendly 

Herve Renard looks to solve World Cup selection issues as Saudi face Ecuador in friendly 
  • Mohamed Kanoo and Fahad Al-Muwallad return after lengthy suspensions while question could arise over exclusion of goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf

A little history will be made on Friday as Saudi Arabia take on Ecuador in Spain. According to reports, Herve Renard will take charge of the national team for the 31st time, equalling the number reached by Jose Peseiro from 2009 to 2011. It is an impressive record and would have been even better had COVID-19 not hit in 2020.

The Frenchman won’t care too much about that as his time will not be judged only on what he has done since his appointment in July 2019 but what happens in November and, hopefully, December in Qatar.

Unlike Peseiro, Renard has taken the Green Falcons to the World Cup and finished qualification on top of a group that also included Japan and Australia. It was an impressive campaign. Renard crafted a team that was more cohesive, flexible and tactically astute than before and got his just rewards with a contract extended to 2027 and a spot at Qatar 2022 in a group with Argentina, Poland and Mexico.

Preparations started almost immediately with June friendlies against Colombia and Venezuela in Spain, two South American opponents that had not qualified for the World Cup. Both games were lost 1-0 and showed there was work to do.

There was a little too much space behind the defense and perhaps a little too much respect given to the opposition, especially Colombia. Still, there were some absences, including star player Salem Al-Dawsari, and Renard himself missed the first due to illness and, as tests go, they were valuable.

Just how valuable will be seen on Friday against a South American team that will be at Qatar — and will face the hosts in their opening match and see Saudi Arabia as good preparation for that — and then a clash with the US four days later.

After three years in charge, Renard has a good idea of his best team and there were few surprises in his squad. An eyebrow or two had been raised at the exclusion of Al-Hilal right-back Mohammed Al-Breik, though there are decent options in this position. The main talking point concerned goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf. The 35-year-old retired from international football in 2019 but then indicated earlier this year that he would be available once more.

It is not going to happen.

“His level is excellent at the moment but Al-Mayouf decided to retire more than three years ago,” Renard said. “We currently have a good goalkeeper, Muhammad Al-Owais, who has played well with the national team.”

Al-Mayouf himself has said that he respects the decision.

As always, a coach will live and die by such decisions but this is an unusual situation and will be discussed by the international media at the World Cup. Al-Mayouf is the number one at Al-Hilal while Al-Owais is his number two and therefore not playing regularly. Many feel that the former is the best domestic shotstopper in a league that is dominated by foreign goalkeepers and not only that, is better on the ball and playing out from the back. He also recently broke the league record for total number of clean sheets.

Yet Al-Owais did perform well in qualification and it is understandable that a coach wants to stay loyal to the man that has consistently delivered. It may be wise, however, to consider taking Al-Mayouf to Qatar to at least give some strength in depth if anything does happen to Al-Owais. Any goalkeeping mistakes in Spain in the next few days will surely lead to a greater debate at home in the next few weeks.

Renard has also called two players who have been serving lengthy bans: Mohamed Kanoo and Fahad Al-Muwallad. Both served well during qualification and will be looking to show the fans, as much as the boss, what they can do. Al-Muwallad has recently left Al-Ittihad to join Al-Shabab and the winger’s attacking qualities are likely to be needed in Qatar. Their experience appeals especially as captain Salman Al-Faraj has been picking up knocks on a regular and worrying basis of late. All hope that the Al-Hilal man stays fit for the big event.

In attack, Renard has recalled Haroune Camara, understandably so, given the lack of options. The mercurial Al-Ittihad forward has not played much this season but has scored one good goal and offers something a little different. Abdullah Al-Hamdan is out, perhaps paying the price for the striking riches that his club Al-Hilal have, which means he is very much a squad player, while club-mate Saleh Al-Shehri is still injured with an achilles tendon and so is touch-and-go for November. Saudi Arabia would welcome any sign of goalscoring prowess from anyone but, at the moment, Firas Al-Buraikan is the main man, even if some feel he is more effective coming off the bench.

Ecuador finished fourth in CONMEBOL qualification and have a squad with plenty of experience in their home continent, Europe and MLS. They arrive in Spain full of confidence and on the back of an unbeaten run of four games, which includes draws against Argentina and Mexico and a win over Nigeria.

So a tough test awaits, which is how it should be just two months out of the World Cup. For Saudi Arabia and their record-breaking coach, it is as much about the performance and fine-tuning the team ahead of Qatar as it is about the result and not falling to a confidence-sapping third defeat in a row against Latin American opposition.


In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love

In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love
Updated 17 sec ago

In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love

In Maradona’s shadow, Messi strives for Argentina’s forever love
  • Adoring Argentines give Messi fantastic backing in Qatar
  • Argentines traditionally more ambivalent to Messi than Maradona
BUENOS AIRES/DOHA: Lionel Messi’s passionate performances at the Qatar World Cup are earning him oodles of love from Argentines, but their old favoritism for Diego Maradona may resurface unless he brings home the trophy on his final attempt.
The two diminutive and brilliant No. 10s have dazzled the world with their prolific goalscoring and strikingly similar styles, relying on low center of gravity to swerve and slalom their way past defenses, ball glued to flashing feet.
Yet only Maradona, who died two years ago, has won the biggest trophy. He dragged a mediocre team behind him in 1986 when his “Hand of God” goal against England became a symbol of national defiance after the shame of the Falkands War defeat.
For years, Argentine fans said that no matter how many Ballons d’Or and trophies Messi won with Barcelona, he could never match Maradona until he too lifted a World Cup.
And why, they asked, was he so shy and introverted whereas their lovable rascal Maradona had entertained them so richly with jokes, songs and expletive-laden tirades against authority?
Was Messi even a true Argentine anyway, some grumbled, especially older fans. After all, he left for Spain at 13 while Maradona was more one of their own, born in a slum and working his way up through local clubs including Boca Juniors.
Messi has, of course, enjoyed more success in sheer numbers of goals and honors than Maradona, even surpassing his national appearances this week as he drove Argentina into the last 16 of the World Cup. And he has kept himself in great shape whereas Maradona succumbed to drugs and wild living in ways that frustrated and saddened even his most loyal fans.
Those close to Messi say that though his shyness may have disguised it in the past, there was always nothing he longed for more than to bring glory to Argentina. That passion was laid bare when he broke down in tears after leading Argentina to the Copa America in 2021, their first major trophy in 28 years.
“Argentines always had a love-hate relationship with Messi,” said 44-year-old fan Gustavo Franchini in Buenos Aires.
“We always compare him with Maradona, who won the World Cup 36 years ago, since when we haven’t won again ... Everyone says he has to win the World Cup to achieve Maradona’s stature and many, like me, think that even then he doesn’t match him,” he added, noting how Maradona carried the 1986 team almost solo.
In Qatar, on Messi’s fifth and final quest, he has been the beating heart of the squad and Argentina appear to have as good a chance as any to lift the trophy on Dec. 18.
Packing out stadiums in Qatar and bars and parks back home, fans have backed Messi throughout, cheering his two goals, encouraging him after a penalty miss, and parading his image proudly on myriad flags and banners.
Many of the banners show Messi and Maradona together, some depicting the late No. 10 smiling down from heaven at his heir. And Messi himself has opened up emotionally to rally the team and nation after their shock defeat to Saudi Arabia. He has celebrated goals wildly with fans and lead celebratory songs on the pitch and in the changing room after they beat Mexico and Poland.
“After the Copa America he seems to have eased up, he’s more relaxed, enjoying it,” said another fan Facundo Moreno, 39, also in the Argentine capital.
“For me, Messi has always felt and done his all for the national team, from his first game until now. He’s my idol,” he added. “Maradona and he have totally different personalities but on the pitch they both do the same.”
Marcelo Sottile, a sports journalist and author of a book about Messi, said that while his clean-cut image and polite persona mirrored the sort of person Argentines aspired to be, the rebellious Maradona reflected more of who they really were.
However, there is a generation gap among those who remember and revere Maradona most and younger fans less prejudiced against Messi, he told Reuters.
“I have an 18-year-old son who never questioned Messi, who never said ‘you play well for Barcelona but not for Argentina’,” he said. “Messi has suffered from being a venerated star in Barcelona but often under attack here in Argentina.”

Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup

Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup
Updated 02 December 2022

Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup

Cheers: Morocco last Arab team left standing in World Cup
  • Morocco beat Canada 2-1 to finish top of their group in a stadium thronged with their supporters

DOHA/RABAT: Moroccan fans celebrated on Thursday as their country became the only Arab nation to reach the knockout rounds of the first World Cup held in an Arab country, dancing and cheering in the stadium in Qatar and on the streets back home.

Morocco beat Canada 2-1 to finish top of their group in a stadium thronged with their supporters. In earlier matches they had tied with Croatia and scored a surprise win over Belgium, the second-ranked team in the world.

“This team can go all the way in this World Cup!” shouted a young woman draped in a Moroccan flag, leaning from the window of a packed car in Rabat as people rushed toward a central district to join street celebrations.

In Qatar, where the home team along with Saudi Arabia and Tunisia have already been knocked out, Morocco now carries the mantle for an Arab world that has cheered victories by Arab teams against some of the tournament favorites.

Hundreds of fans crowded outside the stadium, some pushing and shoving and others trying to climb a fence to get in even after the game had begun, a Reuters journalist there said. Many lacked tickets but hoped to see the game.

“Fans crowded here because they can’t enter the stadium. Almost all these fans have no ticket and they love Morocco and want to get in,” said one, Abdulmajid Mohammed, from Saudi Arabia.

The crowding also left some fans who said they had tickets unable to enter. “We have tickets but they closed all the doors and are not letting people in,” said Mohammad Abdelhadi from Libya, who said his group’s tickets each cost more than $200.

FIFA and Qatar’s World Cup organizers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the crowding outside the stadium.

The deafening support has been a 12th man for the side.

“They proved on the pitch that they are lions... honestly as a Saudi we lost yesterday but we made up for that loss with Morocco’s win,” said Talal Ahmed Obeid, watching at a fan zone in Casablanca.

While Morocco is a proud member of the Arab League, the country has also in recent decades embraced its African identity and Berber lineage, enshrining Amazigh as an official language.

“We hope to fly the flag of African football high,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui on Wednesday.

Mohamed Tahiri, a lawyer out celebrating in Rabat among crowds waving flags and honking car horns despite the rainy weather, said Morocco was the only team left for Arabs to identify with.

“This is a day of celebration not only for us Moroccans but for all Arabs and for all the Amazigh North Africans too,” he said.

People had already been out looking for cafes with televisions to watch the game hours before kickoff.

“My generation is experiencing this for the first time,” said Oufae Abidar, 38, a company employee. She was a toddler when Morocco last reached the knockout phase in 1986. Morocco’s last World Cup appearance, four years ago, ended in the group stage.

Back in Doha, Omani national Saeed Al Maskari, 30, said he would be supporting Morocco now. “We are in the Asian part (of the Arab region) and they are in the African part. But we speak one language,” he said. 


Marathon world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge to run in Boston

Marathon world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge to run in Boston
Updated 02 December 2022

Marathon world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge to run in Boston

Marathon world record-holder Eliud Kipchoge to run in Boston
  • Kipchoge won Berlin in September in 2 hours, 1 minute, 9 seconds — the fastest time in a marathon competition in history

BOSTON: World record holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge will make his Boston Marathon debut in 2023 along with reigning women’s world champion Gotytom Gebreslase and six former Boston winners returning 10 years after two bombs exploded at the finish line.

Two-time winner Lelisa Desisa will return in the men’s division, 10 years after he won the 2013 race that was interrupted by the attacks that came about two hours after the winners crossed. He also won in 2015.

“There is no one in athletics who will be more focused than me this spring in racing, as I look to once again win the Boston Marathon,” Desisa said. “Ten years since my first victory — I understand what this anniversary means and I would love nothing more than to put my name into the history of the race again. I stand with the people of Boston, and I will be running the race of my life for you all.”

Reigning champion Evans Chebet of Kenya will also lead a field of 30,000 from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back bay on April 17 for the 117th edition of the race. Des Linden, the 2018 Boston winner, is also in the race, along with Edna Kiplagat (2017) and Atsede Baysa (2016).

“History and heritage are two cornerstones of the Boston Marathon,” Boston Athletic Association President and CEO Jack Fleming said. “The world will be watching Boston with great anticipation to see how the competition plays out.”

Kipchoge won Berlin in September in 2 hours, 1 minute, 9 seconds — the fastest time in a marathon competition in history. He also completed the distance in an exhibition in 1:59:40 in 2019 in an exhibition engineered to break 2 hours.


Germany’s soul-searching begins after another World Cup flop

Germany’s soul-searching begins after another World Cup flop
Updated 02 December 2022

Germany’s soul-searching begins after another World Cup flop

Germany’s soul-searching begins after another World Cup flop
  • Germany’s fate was effectively decided when they lost their first game 2-1 to Japan, then followed up with a 1-1 draw with Spain

AL-KHOR, Qatar: Another World Cup, another flop.

Former football power Germany is facing another round of soul-searching after going out of the sport’s most important tournament at the first stage for the second time in a row.

Germany’s players spoke afterward of good performances and missed chances — as they’ve done before.

But no one had any real answers to the team’s problems.

“There are 25 experts standing together here. You can all advise each other and then agree on a few details,” Thomas Muller said after Germany’s 4-2 win over Costa Rica on Thursday.

Germany’s fate was effectively decided when they lost their first game 2-1 to Japan, then followed up with a 1-1 draw with Spain.

It left Germany at the bottom of Group E and dependent on a favor from Spain. It never came as Japan defeated Spain in their final game to top the group. Spain progressed ahead of Germany on goal difference.

“I never look at another team, it’s up to us,” Germany coach Hansi Flick said of relying on Spain. “I think ultimately the sum of everything contributed to us being eliminated. We had enough chances, whether in the first half or the first 60 minutes of the game against Japan, or even at the end against Spain, when we had another huge opportunity. You really have to take those chances.”

What Flick failed to mention is that Spain also missed a host of chances to put their game against Germany out of reach before Niclas Füllkrug’s late equalizer.

That goal proved to be the highlight for Germany though it proved to be of little worth in yet another disappointing big-stage performance.

“We haven’t been able to live up to expectations at the tournaments in recent years, because as a team, I would say we don’t really have specialists running around everywhere. We have a lot of players who are very talented. Yes,” Muller said before trailing off and leaving those at the emedia conference to finish his thoughts.

Germany, the 2014 World Cup champion, also crashed out during the group phase at the 2018 tournament in Russia. At last year’s coronavirus-postponed European Championship, Germany was knocked out in the second round.

“I think really, we can’t say where we are,” Germany captain Manuel Neuer said of the team’s place in world football.

Prior to the 2018 World Cup, Germany had reached at least the semifinal stage of every major competition it entered since the 2006 World Cup, which it hosted.

“I joined the team in 2016. Germany was always in the semifinal before that,” midfielder Joshua Kimmich said. “Then I come in and we’re out (of the World Cup) in the first stage and last year in the second round (of the European Championship), it’s hard to take.”


Redemption for Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu 29 years later in Qatar

Redemption for Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu 29 years later in Qatar
Updated 02 December 2022

Redemption for Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu 29 years later in Qatar

Redemption for Japan coach Hajjime Moriyasu 29 years later in Qatar
  • This time the 54-year-old Moriyasu got his Hollywood ending by winning Group E

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar: The “Agony of Doha” came 29 years ago, and Hajjime Moriyasu experienced it first-hand as a midfielder on Japan’s national football team.

He’s now the coach, and he’s made amends.

Japan won their World Cup group on Thursday after beating 2010 champion Spain 2-1 at the Khalifa International Stadium. Last week, the team defeated 2014 champion Germany by the same score at the same venue.

As time was winding down against Spain, Moriyasu was thinking about that game in Qatar against Iraq in 1993 that cost the team a spot in the next year’s tournament.

“About one minute before the end,” Moriyasu said after the win over Spain, “I remembered the tragedy in Doha.”

Leading 2-1 in the team’s final qualifier and knowing one goal for the opposition would spell the end, Japan conceded in stoppage time. Their World Cup hopes were dashed, and so was Moriyasu’s chances of playing at the biggest football tournament in the world.

This time it was different. This time the defense held it together. This time the 54-year-old Moriyasu got his Hollywood ending by winning Group E.

“I could feel that the times have changed,” Moriyasu said, praising his team’s aggressive defending. “They are playing a new kind of football, that’s how I felt.”

Japan’s resistance on the field was typified by 34-year-old captain Maya Yoshida. The veteran central defender reacted fastest when a loose ball in the 90th minute bounced in the goalmouth, up in front of a gaping empty net, after goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda blocked a shot by Jordi Alba.

Yoshida twisted his body to beat Marco Asensio to the ball and clear the danger. When Spain forward Dani Olmo took control seconds later, Gonda blocked his shot with a smothering dive.

On the offensive side, Japan scored in the 48th and 51st minutes. Against Germany, the goals came in the 75th and 83rd.

“In 10 minutes we were dismantled,” Spain coach Luis Enrique said.

Up next is Croatia, a team that reached the final four years ago in Russia. Another victory on Monday would put Japan in the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time.

“We,” the coach said, “are gifting this win to the people of Japan.”