Iranian World Cup squad declines to sing national anthem, backing protests

Iranian World Cup squad declines to sing national anthem, backing protests
Iran national football team players pose ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between England and Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on November 21, 2022. (AFP)
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Updated 21 November 2022

Iranian World Cup squad declines to sing national anthem, backing protests

Iranian World Cup squad declines to sing national anthem, backing protests
  • All of the starting 11 players were silent as the anthem was played at the Khalifa International Stadium

DUBAI:  Iran’s World Cup soccer team declined to sing their national anthem before their opening match against England on Monday after many fans back home accused the squad of siding with a violent state crackdown on persistent popular unrest.
Protests demanding the fall of the ruling Shiite Muslim theocracy have gripped Iran since the death two months ago of young woman Mahsa Amini after her arrest for flouting the strict Islamic dress code.
Dozens of Iranian public figures, athletes and artists have displayed solidarity with the protesters — but not the national soccer team, until Monday’s match when all team members remained silent when the national anthem was played.
Iranian state television did not show the players lined up for the anthem before the match got under way in Qatar, just across the Gulf from their homeland.
The Iranian squad could not avoid being overshadowed by the anti-government unrest that has rattled Iran’s Shiite Muslim theocracy, while other World Cup teams were squarely focused on their tactics on the pitch.
Ahead of the match, no Iranian player had voiced support for the demonstrations by compatriots from all walks of life, one of the most sustained challenges to the cleric elite since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In the past, the Iranian soccer team was a source of fired up national pride throughout the country. Now, with mass protests, many would prefer it withdrew from the World Cup.
Before traveling to Doha the team met with hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Photos of the players with Raisi, one of them bowing in front of him, went viral while the street unrest raged on, drawing an outcry on social media.
“I have mixed feelings. I love football but with all these children, women and men killed in Iran, I think the national team should not play,” university student Elmira, 24, said, speaking by telephone from Tehran before the match.
“It is not Iran’s team, it is the Islamic Republic’s team.
“Show solidarity”
“They could refuse to take part in the World Cup or even refuse to play if they were forced to go, to show that they are part of the nation, to show solidarity with mothers in Iran whose children were killed by the regime (during protests).”
The activist HRANA news agency said 410 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Saturday, including 58 minors.
Some 54 members of the security forces had also been killed, HRANA said, with at least 17,251 people arrested. Authorities have not provided an estimate of any wider death count.
Iranians are especially outraged because athletes around the world have been speaking out for the demonstrators in Iran while their team has remained largely silent.
“I know it is their job to play football but with all those children killed in Iran, they should have stood in solidarity with the people. Especially when the England team is going to kneel (in solidarity), how can the national team show no solidarity?” high school student Setareh, 17, said by telephone from the northwestern city of Urmia.
“FIFA should not have included the team because of protests in Iran and the regime’s violation of human rights. That did not happen, so then the team should not have gone in order to show solidarity with the protesters.”
Some Iranian fans who went to Qatar for the World Cup made no secret of their solidarity with the unrest.
They carried banners that read “Woman, Life Freedom” in support of the protests. “Freedom for Iran. Stop killing children in the streets!” shouted one Iranian woman.
Another Iranian woman with the colors of an Iranian flag painted on her face said Iran is a football-crazed nation.
“But this year,” she said, “everything is different, all we care about is this revolution and for people to get their freedom back, and not be scared to just walk on the street, do and dress as they want, and say what they want.”
In the capital Tehran, some banners of the national team have been burned by angry protesters.
Other Iranians like Zeynab Mohammadi wished success for the team. “I will watch the game with my friends at home. I will pray for my team to win,” Mohammadi, 21, said in Tehran, echoing other supporters who took to social media to cheer the players.
However, pictures of children killed in the protests were widely shared by Iranians on Twitter, with messages such as: “They loved football too, but they were killed by the Islamic Republic.”
“Those children took risks for their country and were killed by the regime. The national team should take risks and show solidarity with the nation,” said Hamidreza, 19, a university student in southern Iran.
“For our nation, for Iran, for all those children, men, women killed in the past weeks by the regime, be our voice in Qatar. Show solidarity if you are Iran’s national soccer team.” 

On and off the pitch, Premier League caters to Muslims during Ramadan

On and off the pitch, Premier League caters to Muslims during Ramadan
Updated 31 March 2023

On and off the pitch, Premier League caters to Muslims during Ramadan

On and off the pitch, Premier League caters to Muslims during Ramadan
  • For the first time, English officials will provide iftar breaks for fasting players

Throughout Ramadan, many Muslims around the world find themselves counting down the hours till sunset when they can devour a lavish iftar.

Now imagine this same act of endurance as an elite athlete competing in intense professional sport.

For the first time, the English Premier League and Football League this year have asked match officials to cater to the needs of Muslim professional players.

With the Premier League restarting this weekend after the international break, the English Football Association has advised referees to provide an opportunity for Muslim players to break their fast during a match.

As the sport becomes more global and top athletes join from a range of backgrounds, it is inevitable that the presence of practicing Muslim footballers will increase in football. From Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah to Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, some of the Premier League’s biggest superstars are devout Muslims.

During Ramadan, these athletes are pushed to their limits. Their normal training regime, which includes strict nutritional diets and regular intense physical sessions, is sent into disarray. With no food or drink through daylight hours, players’ energy levels can vary drastically during the Muslim holy month.

The move by the Premier League — one of the most lucrative sporting outfits in the world — to cater for its Muslim participants is not only a show of acceptance and inclusivity but also takes a stand against racism and islamophobia.

“The Premier League is the best for Muslim players to be in,” said Everton’s Abdoulaye Doucoure when speaking to BBC Sport. “We feel very confident here, very accepted.”

Such signs of progress and acceptance by the Premier League show that things have come a long way from the time when prejudiced spectators would describe images of Muslim fans praying at stadiums as a “disgrace.” 

This year will not be the first during which a Ramadan pause takes place in a Premier League match. In 2021, during a late kick-off match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace, an agreement between the clubs allowed for an iftar break.

This year, however, the Premier League has made such a pause a widespread guidance for all late kick-off matches, allowing Muslim players to take on energy gels and rehydrate themselves as soon as the sun sets.

However, there has been no evidence that fasting interferes with a player’s ability to perform at an elite level. A study by British sports university Loughborough concluded that “the available evidence indicates that high-level athletes can maintain performance during Ramadan.”

One prime example is Karim Benzema. In Real Madrid’s Champion’s League-winning campaign last year, he sensationally scored a hat-trick against Chelsea after fasting all day. The recommendation from sports scientists, however, is that “physical training, food and fluid intake, and sleep, are appropriate and well controlled” during Ramadan.

Sadio Mane, speaking to beIN Sports last year, described how Liverpool catered to his and his fellow Muslim teammates’ needs during Ramadan.

The players were monitored by the club’s nutritionist during pre-match preparations, while coach Jurgen Klopp agreed to reschedule training sessions to facilitate an easier Ramadan period for the team’s practicing Muslims.

This year, other clubs have taken this inclusivity to another level. Teams such as Chelsea and Brighton have for the first time organized open iftars in their stadiums; welcoming both Muslims and non-Muslims alike to break their fast, build a more hospitable community and learn about cultural differences.

Growing up as a Muslim football fan, it rarely felt that we were welcome at such sporting events. From champagne celebrations to a lack of understanding of what Ramadan means, I could even sense the divide at university-level football.

It is heart-warming to see that the English FA has scrapped champagne celebrations at cup finals, and has now provided Muslim players with appropriate and necessary breaks during Ramadan.

Let’s hope other leagues and sports around the world take a leaf out of the Premier League’s book.

Saudi’s Ziyad Almaayouf set for another major bout on Anthony Joshua undercard

Saudi’s Ziyad Almaayouf set for another major bout on Anthony Joshua undercard
Updated 31 March 2023

Saudi’s Ziyad Almaayouf set for another major bout on Anthony Joshua undercard

Saudi’s Ziyad Almaayouf set for another major bout on Anthony Joshua undercard
  • The 22-year-old boxer will face off against Georgi Velichkov of Bulgaria at London’s O2 Arena on Saturday

One of Saudi Arabia’s top boxing prospects is set to take another major step in his career on Saturday night.

Super lightweight boxing prospect Ziyad Almaayouf will face off against Georgi Velichkov of Bulgaria on the undercard of a heavyweight matchup between Anthony Joshua and Jermaine Franklin at the O2 Arena in the heart of London’s Docklands.

It will be the third time Almaayouf has fought on the undercard of a Joshua fight, with the two previous bouts taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Almaayouf told Arab News that his first fight outside of the Kingdom brought new pressures.

“The pressure is always there. The more you run from it, the more it runs after you, but, as a fighter, I have to stand there and be there,” he said. “(In this fight) I want to display defense, offense, composure — I am not only representing Saudi Arabia, but I am also representing boxing in Saudi Arabia.”

In clear recognition of his potential, Almaayouf, known by the nickname “Zizo,” will have a world-class trainer in his corner on Saturday night. That is because Almaayouf is trained by Buddy McGirt, a former world champion in two weight classes.

McGirt has trained former heavyweight champion Hasim Rahman and is the current coach of WBO middleweight world champion Zhanibek Alimkhanuly of Kazakhstan.

“I studied McGirt long before I knew him as coach, he is one of the figures that has been inspirational to me in the sport of boxing. The other is His Royal Highness Prince Khaled (Al-Saud), who has always been there for me,” Almaayouf said.

Almaayouf is not sure if his next fight will be in Saudi Arabia, but he is excited to see the growth of the sport in the country of his birth.

“It all starts with exposure, which starts to build fighters — that’s how we build fighters who show heart (in the ring). We need to be patient because that comes through the trials, turbulence, and failure in the ring. You can’t teach it. This is a tough business.”

Almaayouf is quick with a smile, and his affable personality has already won him many fans in Saudi Arabia and beyond. While being taught an entirely different sport, the young Almaayouf first became interested in boxing.

As a young tennis student, a chance encounter with a boxing class changed the trajectory of his life. The 22-year-old began training for the sport at age 11. Only COVID-19 prevented him from representing Saudi Arabia at the Tokyo Olympics and he proudly wears the Saudi emblem on his warmup jacket.

“I saw some people while training for tennis. These boxing students didn’t have a place (to train) and would use the track next to us. I saw them, and I remember thinking, who is Saudi Arabia? Who in the Arab world ever achieved in boxing? I wanted to be involved in that.”

Almaayouf speaks with pride about what the sport has achieved in Saudi Arabia in just a few short years — from heavyweight world title fights to the growth of boxing gyms across the country. Almaayouf wants to be a part of that evolving story.

“I am proud to be here as an ambassador for Saudi Arabia and its athletes, which, guided by Vision 2030, is the fastest growing economy in the world, and sport is part of that vision.”

Hayes hails Berger as Chelsea stun Lyon in Champions League shootout

Hayes hails Berger as Chelsea stun Lyon in Champions League shootout
Updated 31 March 2023

Hayes hails Berger as Chelsea stun Lyon in Champions League shootout

Hayes hails Berger as Chelsea stun Lyon in Champions League shootout
  • Blues’ success sparked joyous scenes at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea facing a Barcelona side that beat them 4-0 in the 2021 final

LONDON: Chelsea manager Emma Hayes lauded Ann-Katrin Berger as the “best pen-saving goalkeeper I’ve worked with” after the Germany international’s heroics helped the Blues knock holders Lyon out of the Women’s Champions League on Thursday.

The 32-year-old, diagnosed with thyroid cancer for a second time in August, made two saves in a penalty shootout Chelsea won 4-3 to set-up a semifinal with Barcelona.

An already dramatic two-legged tie finished level at 2-2, but only after Chelsea substitute Maren Mjelde scored a penalty in the eighth minute of added-on time at the end of extra-time to send the match to spot-kicks.

Mjelde then scored the first penalty of the shootout.

Berger later denied Wendie Renard before ending the match when she got a strong hand to US international Lindsey Horan’s strike low to the bottom left corner.

The Blues’ success sparked joyous scenes at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea — yet to win the Women’s Champions League — now facing a Barcelona side that beat them 4-0 in the 2021 final.

“She’s someone who really thrives in big moments,” said Hayes, in charge of Chelsea for nearly 11 years, of Berger.

“She’s probably the best pen-saving goalkeeper I’ve worked with.”

Hayes added: “It was the most character-building performance, even if it was the ugliest...I’m relieved and exhausted.”

Earlier, two-time Champions League winners Wolfsburg secured a last-four place against Arsenal, one of Chelsea’s London rivals, with a 2-1 aggregate win over Paris Saint-Germain.

Eight-time champions Lyon appeared to have done enough when Sara Dabritz’s goal deep into extra-time put the French side 2-0 up on the night and 2-1 ahead on aggregate.

But in the third minute of added-on time at the end of extra time, Lyon’s Vicki Becho clipped Lauren James inside the box.

Contact appeared to be minimal but, following a lengthy VAR check and with Lyon players surrounding referee Ivana Martincic, a penalty was awarded.

Mjelde then made no mistake with the last kick of extra-time.

Lyon coach Sonia Bompastor was left with feelings of “frustration and injustice” at a penalty awarded after Martincic was instructed to consult the pitch-side VAR.

“The referee made the right decision live (for the penalty),” she said. “Then she was obliged by VAR to go and look.”

Lyon, who had won this competition in six of the last seven seasons, kicked off 1-0 behind after Guro Reiten’s curling shot had given Chelsea a first-leg lead in France last week.

The visitors brought Champions League record goalscorer Ada Hegerberg off the bench at the start of the second half.

But they had to wait until the 77th minute to draw level when Vanessa Gilles nudged the ball in from a tight angle.

In a bruising encounter, neither side could manage another goal until the 110th minute when Dabritz shot into the far corner.

Previously, a 1-1 draw at home was good enough for Wolfsburg to go through.

The German club took an early lead through star striker Alexandra Popp but that was soon canceled out by a Kadidiatou Diani equalizer.

Wolfsburg manager Tommy Stroot enjoyed his side’s “extremely special” victory, saying “we made it, we’re proud of it – and now Arsenal waits for us.”

Three-time Champions League winner Popp told DAZN: “We are mega happy and mega proud. It was a hard fight but we dug in.”

The hosts went ahead on the night when Popp curled in a shot from outside the box following Wolfsburg’s first foray deep into PSG territory.

PSG also scored against the run of play when Diani headed in a looped cross from Sakina Karchaoui.

Mi Hyang Lee leads LPGA Tour event at Palos Verdes with 65

Mi Hyang Lee leads LPGA Tour event at Palos Verdes with 65
Updated 31 March 2023

Mi Hyang Lee leads LPGA Tour event at Palos Verdes with 65

Mi Hyang Lee leads LPGA Tour event at Palos Verdes with 65
  • Lee turned 30 on Thursday and called it ‘the best birthday round I’ve ever had’

PALOS VERDES ESTATES, California:  Mi Hyang Lee shot a 6-under 65 in her first LPGA Tour event of the year for a one-stroke lead in the opening round of the DIO Implant LA Open on Thursday.

Lee, a South Korean who earned her spot in a Monday qualifier, hit all 18 greens in regulation, played bogey-free and closed with a birdie on the par-4 18th hole in challenging conditions at Palos Verdes. Players endured intermitted rain and hail with temperatures in the 40s.

Lee turned 30 on Thursday and called it “the best birthday round I’ve ever had.”

Lee, ranked 378th in the world, has two career LPGA Tour victories, the more recent at the Ladies Scottish Open in 2017. She was runner-up at the ANA Inspiration, a major, in 2019 to reach a career-best 31st in the ranking but has struggled the past three years. She’s coming off a tie for sixth in an Epson Tour event last week.

Megan Khang and Hyo Joo Kim — a close friend of Lee’s — each shot 66. Nasa Hataoka, Lucy Li and Maude-Aimee LeBlanc were another shot behind.

“You know, I’ve come pretty close here and there,” said Khang, winless in eight years on the LPGA Tour. “I tell myself the more I give myself chances and opportunities the easier — quote-unquote — easier it’s going to get in those situations and trying to get my foot through the door. ... I know I’m capable of doing it and it’s just a matter of time.”

Second-ranked Nelly Korda and her sister, Jessica, were among the group at 3 under.

This is the fifth playing of the LA Open and the first at Palos Verdes, which hosted a different event, the Palos Verdes Championship, last year — won by Marina Alex, who shot a 1-over 72 on Thursday.

Tatum, Brown star as Celtics whip NBA-leading Bucks

Tatum, Brown star as Celtics whip NBA-leading Bucks
Updated 31 March 2023

Tatum, Brown star as Celtics whip NBA-leading Bucks

Tatum, Brown star as Celtics whip NBA-leading Bucks
  • The defeat was a sobering reality check for the Bucks, who are leading the Eastern Conference and expected to claim top seeding in the playoffs

LOS ANGELES: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 70 points as the Boston Celtics crushed the Milwaukee Bucks 140-99 in a one-sided clash of the NBA’s best two teams on Thursday.

Tatum produced a scintillating performance that included eight three-pointers in a 40-point haul, while Brown shot 13-of-20 to finish with 30 points as Milwaukee were sent spinning to their heaviest loss of the season.

The defeat was a sobering reality check for the Bucks, who are leading the Eastern Conference and expected to claim top seeding in the playoffs.

Milwaukee (55-22) lead Boston (53-24) by two games with five regular season fixtures remaining.

Second-placed Boston however landed what may turn out to be a psychological body blow as the postseason looms with a ruthless beatdown that left Milwaukee’s home fans in stunned silence.

“We just wanted to come out and be aggressive,” Brown said.

“We just wanted to come out and play good basketball and that’s what we did.”

Tensions flared in the closing stages of the blowout, with Milwaukee’s Thanasis Antetokounmpo ejected for aiming a head butt at Boston’s Blake Griffin.

“It’s that time of year,” Brown said. “We’re all getting ready for the playoffs, it’s backs against the wall and survival of the fittest.

“We want to be the last team on top and they’re one of the teams we’ve got to go through.”

Tatum was in no mood to wallow in the victory, pointing out that Boston face another road game on Friday against Utah.

“We have to forget about tonight. We want to show how good of a team we are by the way we respond tomorrow,” Tatum said. “That’s all that matters at this point.”

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said the result was a timely reminder of what might happen in the playoffs if the two sides met again.

“We know what the deal is. It’s not hard to understand. If you’re not focused, if you don’t play hard, they’re going to kick our ass,” Antetokounmpo said.

“Simple as that. They did it tonight and won by 40. If you don’t go out there to make it tough for them, they’re going to kick our ass. There’s no level of concern. It’s a fact.

“Now we have this in our head, and it’s up to us to see how we deal with it. If we go out and play the same way, we’re going to have the same outcome.”

The contest was effectively all but finished in the third quarter, with the Celtics racing away to a 44-point lead at one stage.

Boston were up by 40 points entering the fourth quarter, allowing head coach Joe Mazzulla to rest Tatum, Brown and other starters.

Still, the Celtics kept up the pressure, extending their lead to 49 points midway through the fourth.

In what could well turn out to be a sneak preview of the Eastern Conference finals, Boston went on the front foot early, taking a 34-26 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The Celtics then blew the game wide open in the second quarter, outscoring the Bucks 41-21 to take a stranglehold on the game.

Boston continued to drop the hammer in the third quarter, with Tatum pouring in 18 points — including four three-pointers — to roar to a 114-74 lead.

“We’ve been playing good basketball for the last couple of weeks,” Brown said.

“We’ve just got to keep it up and see where that takes us.”

While Boston departed Milwaukee with a confidence-boosting win, the Bucks were left with plenty of food for thought after an iron-clad Celtics defensive effort shut down the home side’s scorers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo finished with 24 points, while Khris Middleton ended with 13. No other Milwaukee starter cracked double figures.