Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end

Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end
Large banner welcomes the Qatari national football team as part of preparations ahead of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup football championship in Iraq's southern city of Basra. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 January 2023

Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end

Iraq welcomes neigbors back as years of football wilderness come to an end
  • Hosting of 25th Arabian Gulf Cup in Basra has brought joy to locals and is a sign the nation is open for business after decades of strife

BASRA: There is an air of excitement around Basra. The streets of the southern Iraqi city are full. The markets, propped up along the famed Shatt Al-Arab river delta, are sprawling as music blasts from speakers in celebration.

Basra is making a statement on behalf of the country: 20 years on from the Iraq war, Iraq is back. The nation is making its mark on the global stage and is beginning with Basra hosting the 25th Arab Gulf Cup.

If anything, this feels more like a welcome-back ceremony. It is the first time Iraq has hosted the tournament since 1979. Thanks to years of war, sanctions and political corruption and dictatorship, FIFA has not permitted Iraq to host international football matches on its home turf for three decades. That ban was lifted in late 2021 and paved the way for Iraq to host the prestigious tournament, having previously won the trophy three times.

This long period of absence from the international scene has left Iraq an increasingly isolated country. With a passport consistently ranked one of the lowest in the world, few Iraqis have the privilege to travel and even fewer from the international community have ventured into the war-torn nation for tourism. The tide has been turning in recent years, however, with Iraq now ranked the sixth-fastest growing economy in the world, and the Arabian Gulf Cup is the ideal place to advertise to its neighbors that Iraq is open again for tourism and trade.

Basra is Iraq’s economic powerhouse and football is not the first association people make with the city. Responsible for 70 percent of Iraq’s crude oil production — the nation’s main source of income — and famed for its dates whose syrup can even be found on the shelves of Walmart’s across the US, the Middle East’s eyes will instead be focussed on the football that the city is hosting as thousands descend on Iraq’s economic capital from around the world.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Raid Ali, an Iraqi dentist living in Cardiff, Wales who caught two overnight flights just to see the opening ceremony. “I had to be a part of it, we don’t know how long Iraq is going to be stable for.”

For years Iraq has become synonymous with war and violence. Car bombs and deadly attacks became so common that they rarely caused a ripple in media networks worldwide. But despite the security and economic concerns, one thing that has always united Iraqis is their love of football. Fans filled cafes whenever Lionel Messi’s Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid would play.

One footballing memory stands out for most Iraqis. Against all the odds, the Iraqi men’s national soccer team won the Asian Cup in 2007 against local behemoths Saudi Arabia, despite it being Iraq’s worst year of violence. Saudis in the past have told me that, on that day, they supported Iraq.

“Iraq’s win in 2007 really ignited my love for my country once again,” said Hassanane Balal, host of the definitive ‘Iraq Football Podcast.’ “I was proud to be Iraqi when I saw them lift that cup.”

Football has shown how it transcends mere entertainment. Just as Iraq’s 2007 heroic team eased the country’s divisions, the nation is now united over bringing a successful tournament to Iraq. The Gulf Cup has put a smile on many Iraqi faces, and after years of suffering they surely deserve it.

Hosting the tournament is not just about the football, it is about the progress and stability of Iraq that it symbolizes, as well as being a welcoming for its international neighbors. Even before the first ball has been kicked, Ali says: “I can feel myself getting emotional already.”

That’s what this event means to so many Iraqis.

Novak Djokovic hails Dubai’s ‘champion mentality’

Novak Djokovic hails Dubai’s ‘champion mentality’
Updated 23 March 2023

Novak Djokovic hails Dubai’s ‘champion mentality’

Novak Djokovic hails Dubai’s ‘champion mentality’
  • World No. 1 says the city is his ‘second home’ and top global choice for innovation

DUBAI: World No. 1 men’s tennis player Novak Djokovic described Dubai as his “second home” and hailed its winning mentality at Dubai Future District Fund’s annual general meeting yesterday.

The Serbian tennis player praised the emirate’s “incredible and rapid growth” in a conversation with Becky Anderson, managing editor at CNN Abu Dhabi & Anchor, at the Museum of the Future. The 22-time Grand Slam winner lauded Dubai and the UAE’s “culture of innovation” which has had a major positive impact around the world.

“I want to have Dubai as a base for my business and innovation,” the 35-year-old said in a fireside chat titled “Belief to Champion.”

“I love the champion mentality here in Dubai. I love that people here want to be the best in the world. And I’m sure that with this kind of mentality and approach, they will become the leaders.”

In a wide-ranging discussion, Djokovic spoke on the “trials and tribulations” he faced as a young child growing up in conflict-hit Serbia and how those experiences helped him become one of the greatest-ever men’s tennis players.

“I was a young boy who dared to dream big and believe that those dreams would come true,” he added. “Obviously coming from a war-torn country in the 1990s, it was not easy and there was a lot of adversity in society and challenges that my family had to face to support and fund the career of a tennis player.

“It has had a great influence on my character. Waiting in line for several hours from 6 a.m. to have a piece of bread that we would all share. It was hard but at the same time I look back and reflect on that as a very important stage in my life.”

Jessica Smith, an Australian Paralympic swimmer who has one of the world’s most advanced bionic arms, also spoke at DFDF’s meeting.

Fitted with a prosthetic limb at 18 months old and then suffering third-degree burns to 15 percent of her body as a toddler, Smith said she understood adversity when medical professionals saw her as “broken and incomplete.”

But this did not deter her. “I was going to prove to the world that I was going to do whatever I wanted to do without any help,” she said. “We are no longer looking at disability through a medical lens, but a social one. We realize people are more disabled by their social environment than their own disabilities.”

With the global disability community boasting $13 trillion in spending power per year, Smith also called on companies to accelerate disability-focused innovation and praised the UAE’s work in this field. “I am so grateful to the UAE leaders who are working hard to create more inclusive pathways for people of determination.”

Nepal and the UAE taking different cricketing trajectories

Nepal and the UAE taking different cricketing trajectories
Updated 23 March 2023

Nepal and the UAE taking different cricketing trajectories

Nepal and the UAE taking different cricketing trajectories
  • A win in Kathmandu over the GCC country sees Nepal advance in World Cup qualifiers

Evidence of cricket’s deepening and widening appeal is apparent in its growth in an increasing number of countries. The game’s ability to generate occasions of high drama and tension is being witnessed in diverse locations.

Last week, this was nowhere more apparent than in Nepal, a country not normally considered a cricket playing nation in many people’s minds.

Until the 1980s, the game was a niche activity, limited to Kathmandu. A major development program, introduced in the early 1990s, boosted playing participation and facilities. This led to the first appearance of a Nepal men’s team in an international tournament, the Asia Cricket Cup, in 1996. In the same year, Nepal became an Associate member of the International Cricket Council. Steady growth in performance was rewarded with ICC T20I status in 2014 and ODI status in 2018.

This was achieved in dramatic fashion, something that has become a hallmark of Nepal’s cricketing personality.

Nepal needed to win its final match in a World Cup qualifying tournament and then hope that the Netherlands beat Hong Kong, which they did. All of this was against a backdrop of Nepal’s cricket board having been suspended by the ICC in 2016 for a breach of ICC regulation Article 2.9, which prohibits government interference and requires free and fair elections. Conditional readmittance was granted by the ICC in October 2019.

After ODI status had been secured, Nepal’s captain at the time, Paras Khadka, referred to “years and years of toil, persistence, sacrifices, commitment and hard work.” He also referred to the need to stabilize domestic structures, if ambitions to reach an ODI World Cup and even Test playing status, were to be realized. In 10 years since 2008, Nepal has risen from being in Division 5 to being within touching distance of the big players.

One factor that is not missing domestically is the level of fan support. Nepal is recognized as being the most fervently supported ICC Associate member. This fervor has spilled over on occasions. In February 2010, when Nepal looked to be losing a Division 5 match against the US, the crowd threw objects onto the field, causing an hour’s delay. This led to a revised target, which helped Nepal, who edged into Division 4 on net run rate at the expense of Singapore, who appealed. A conditional ban was imposed, with the height of stadium walls ordered to be increased. In December 2011, a similar crowd disturbance occurred in a match with the UAE, leading to a ban on hosting ICC events in 2012.

There was no ban in 2013, when Nepal hosted the Asia Cricket Cup, reaching the final, only to be beaten by Afghanistan. Crowds of between 15,000 and 20,000 were reported to have attended group stage matches, rising to 25,000 for the semifinal and final, which was free of crowd disruption.

Hundreds of thousands watched the match live on television. The explanation for such support may lie in the composition of the team, which comprises indigenous players, who have progressed through the age group ranks. It may also lie in the absence of ticketing arrangements in the past.

Although this was not the case for Nepal’s match against the UAE on March 16, 2023, it may as well have been, according to reports. The occasion was infused with expectation. It was the final match of 134 played in League 2 of the ICC 2023 ODI World Cup qualifying phase.

The outcome would finalize the third team which would progress to the next stage, one step away from playing in the World Cup in India in October and November. Scotland and Oman had finished first and second, with Namibia holding third place, one point ahead of Nepal.

In early February 2023, Nepal seemed to have little chance of making the third place, languishing in the second to bottom spot. The UAE were much better placed, but imploded in their last 10 matches, winning only three.

Surprisingly, their defeats included three by bottom team Papua New Guinea. Nepal, on the other hand, won 10 of its last 11 matches prior to the final match against the UAE, which was out of the running for third place.

Long queues formed several hours before the start of play. Later, people climbed the surrounding walls and trees, before the main gate and its defenders were breached. The Tribhuvan University Cricket Ground, Kirtipur, Kathmandu, is one of only two grounds to host international matches in Nepal. Its capacity is 18,000 but eyewitnesses suggest that more than 25,000 gained access to the ground. They were disappointed by the UAE’s progress, which saw a huge score of 310 being posted, including the fastest century by an ODI Associate cricketer.

In response to this mammoth target, Nepal lost three wickets cheaply, before rebuilding. A rain shower tightened the nerves of spectators, as Nepal was behind in the par score at that point. They became even more tense as they witnessed the UAE’s tactics to slow the game down.

Fears of disturbance rose. Some Nepalese players pleaded with supporters to stay calm. Then, at 5:37 p.m. local time, with 44 overs bowled, the umpires decided that it was too dark for play to continue. Nepal had scored 269 for six. According to the DLS system used to calculate interruptions to play, Nepal’s target at that point was 260. Another victory had been achieved in dramatic circumstances, against old foes, who were mightily displeased.

The UAE will now join a playoff competition in Namibia between March 26 and April 5. This comprises the bottom four teams in League 2, plus Canada and Jersey, who won feeder Challenger leagues.

ODI status is at stake for the UAE, since the two highest placed teams out of the UAE, Namibia, Canada and Jersey will secure ODI status for the 2023-2027 World Cup cycle. The UAE’s leading players participated in the DP World ILT20 League in January and February.

Since then, the team’s performance has stalled badly, whereas Nepal’s star has risen.

5 things to keep an eye on at the 2023 Dubai World Cup

5 things to keep an eye on at the 2023 Dubai World Cup
Updated 23 March 2023

5 things to keep an eye on at the 2023 Dubai World Cup

5 things to keep an eye on at the 2023 Dubai World Cup
  • Some of world’s best trainers, jockeys and horses will light up Meydan Racecourse on Saturday

The 27th Dubai World Cup on Saturday, March 25, is set to attract some of the world’s best trainers, jockeys and horses to Meydan Racecourse, and here are five things to watch out for.

The best horse in the world

He’s called Equinox, trained in Japan and he’s very, very good. He runs in the $6 million Longines Dubai Sheema Classic and is one of a record 27 Japanese runners on the night. Last year they won five races, how many trophies will they take home this time?

Frankie Dettori’s last ride in Dubai

He’s the world’s most famous jockey and he’s retiring at the end of the year. Dettori’s career was arguably made in Dubai thanks to his association with Godolphin. He’s won four editions of the Dubai World Cup and will defend last year’s title on Country Grammer which is likely to be his last ride at Meydan. Will we see that famous flying dismount one last time?

Cheer on your country

There are 130 horses from 13 different countries racing on Saturday, including five from Hong Kong, four from Ireland and one from Australia. Jockeys are from all over the world, including Spain, Panama and Brazil. Chances are there will be someone to cheer on from your country, or you can support the UAE through the formidable Godolphin team who have Rebel’s Romance, Nations Pride and Real World among a plethora of strong chances.

A spectacular … but secret finale

Due to the holy month of Ramadan, there is no post-race concert this year but the closing ceremony promises to be spellbinding. Expect fireworks, drones, lights … the rest is being kept a closely guarded secret.

High Style Stakes

Fancy yourself a fashionista? There’s more than $81,200 (AED300,000) worth of prizes up for grabs in the Style Stakes which now features a new Best Traditional Outfit category. You’ve got to be in it to win it as they say — and that includes you, gentlemen.

Raducanu, Stephens, Murray bomb out  at Miami Open tennis tournament

Raducanu, Stephens, Murray bomb out  at Miami Open tennis tournament
Updated 23 March 2023

Raducanu, Stephens, Murray bomb out  at Miami Open tennis tournament

Raducanu, Stephens, Murray bomb out  at Miami Open tennis tournament
  • Bianca Andreescu — the 2019 US Open champ — defeated Raducanu 6-3, 3-6, 6-2
  • On the men’s side, Dusan Lajovic beat three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray 6-4, 7-5

MIAMI GARDENS, Florida: Former US Open champions Emma Raducanu and Sloane Stephens were knocked out of the Miami Open on Wednesday, hours after No. 1-ranked and defending champion Iga Swiatek pulled out of the tournament because of a rib injury.

Bianca Andreescu — the 2019 US Open champ — defeated Raducanu 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Andreescu improved to 2-0 lifetime against Raducanu, the 2021 winner at Flushing Meadows.

“Miami has a special place in my heart,” Andreescu said. “I’ve been coming here since I was I think 12 years old, whether it’s for vacation or training or, yeah, Orange Bowl. I love that tournament very much. Yeah, coming back here, I think it’s just good vibes overall.”

Andreescu moves on to face 10th-ranked Maria Sakkari, who had a first-round bye.

Shelby Rogers beat Stephens 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. Stephens has six hard-court titles, including the US Open in 2017 and Miami in 2018.

Rogers will face Australian Open champion and world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, who beat Rogers in the second round at Melbourne Park. Sabalenka is coming off a loss in the final at Indian Wells, California, last week.

On the men’s side, Dusan Lajovic beat three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray 6-4, 7-5.

“I served pretty well, but the rest of the game was a bit of a problem today,” the 35-year-old Murray said. “Made a number of errors that obviously I wouldn’t expect to be making. I didn’t really feel like I moved particularly well, which is really important for me.”

Lajovic, a 32-year-old Serbian, will face Maxime Cressy, who had a first-round bye.

Swiatek withdrew because of a rib injury that she is hoping will heal during a break from competition. The 21-year-old from Poland also will sit out her country’s Billie Jean King Cup qualifier matches against Kazakhstan on April 13-14.

“I wanted to wait ‘til the last minute” to decide whether to play in Miami, Swiatek said at a news conference at the site of the hard-court tournament that began Tuesday. “We were kind of checking if this is the kind of injury you can still play with or this is kind when you can get things worse. So I think the smart move for me is to pull out of this tournament because I want to rest and take care of it properly.”

In other action, 24-year-old American J.J. Wolf defeated Alexander Bublik 7-5, 6-3. He’ll face No. 7-ranked Andrey Rublev, who had a first-round bye.

Gael Monfils retired from his match against Ugo Humbert due to a persistent wrist injury.

Scheffler, McIlroy grab opening victories while Rahm falls at WGC Match Play

Scheffler, McIlroy grab opening victories while Rahm falls at WGC Match Play
Updated 23 March 2023

Scheffler, McIlroy grab opening victories while Rahm falls at WGC Match Play

Scheffler, McIlroy grab opening victories while Rahm falls at WGC Match Play
  • Spain’s Rahm fell to US 49th seed Fowler 2 and 1
  • South Korean Tom Kim edged Sweden’s Alex Noren 2 and 1 in Scheffler’s group

WASHINGTON: Top-ranked Scottie Scheffler and world No.3 Rory McIlroy won while second-ranked Jon Rahm lost to Rickie Fowler in Wednesday’s opening group matches at the WGC Match Play Championship.

US seventh seed Will Zalatoris and Norwegian eighth seed Viktor Hovland were also among five top group seeds to fall on day one at Austin (Texas) Country Club.

Sixteen winners from four-man groups will advance to weekend knockout rounds.

Reigning Masters champion Scheffler, who won the Players Championship earlier this month, sank a 13-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole to edge US 54th seed Davis Riley 2 and 1.

“Fortunate to come away with a win,” Scheffler said. “I’m going to remember that putt on the last hole and take that energy into tomorrow.”

Scheffler, who never trailed, holed out from 52 feet for eagle to win the par-4 fifth hole and eagled from 24 feet to take the par-4 13th.

Riley missed a three-foot birdie putt at the par-5 16th that would have pulled him level but Scheffler missed a 3.5-foot putt at the par-3 17th to win the match.

“I got off to a really good start. Outside of that I didn’t really play great,” Scheffler said. “Fortunately I saw that putt go in on 18.”

South Korean Tom Kim edged Sweden’s Alex Noren 2 and 1 in Scheffler’s group.

Spain’s Rahm fell to US 49th seed Fowler 2 and 1. Rahm, a three-time PGA winner this year, missed a par putt from just inside five feet to drop the 15th. Fowler sank a seven-footer for par at 16 and halved 17 as well to win.

“Just had to stay patient and rely on iron play,” Fowler said. “I just kept grinding and pushing forward.”

It was Fowler’s first appearance at the event since 2016 and Rahm’s first opening-match loss in six starts.

Four-time major winner McIlroy beat American Scott Stallings 3 and 1 with a new putter and new driver.

“It was a good first outing for both those clubs,” McIlroy said. “They performed pretty well.”

The 2015 Match Play winner from Northern Ireland said the event helps prepare him for stroke-play challenges to come.

“There’s a ton of golf left this season but to get a bit of match play in our lives is good, and to get under pressure,” McIlroy said.

US 20th seed Keegan Bradley, 4-down after 13, won four of the last five holes, his six-foot birdie putt taking 18 to tie countryman Denny McCarthy in McIlroy’s group.

Zalatoris dropped the last three holes to fall 3 and 2 to 56th-seeded compatriot Andrew Putnam.

US 59th seed Matt Kuchar, the 2013 Match Play champion, won 3 and 1 over Hovland. Kuchar, at 44 the oldest in the field, is one shy of Tiger Woods’s event record 36 match wins.

Aussie 33rd seed Adam Scott sank a 26-foot birdie putt at the 18th to grab his only lead in a 1-up victory over Irish 30th seed Seamus Power.

Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, last won a PGA title in 2020 at Riviera.

“I haven’t won anything much in a long time,” he said. “A win feels satisfying.”

South Korean 16th seed Im Sung-jae beat US 58th seed Maverick McNealy 8 and 6, matching the most lopsided group win at Austin.

US 61st seed J.J. Spaun never trailed in upsetting England’s 11th-seeded Matt Fitzpatrick 5 and 3. Spaun won four of the last five holes from the reigning US Open champion with three birdies and an eagle hole-out from 107 yards at the par-4 13th.

“I just slung it with the wind,” Spaun said. “I could tell it was going to be pretty good, but then it got really good and then it just disappeared and the crowd went nuts.”