Morocco’s decision to reverse boycott a major boost for African Nations Championships

Analysis Morocco’s decision to reverse boycott a major boost for African Nations Championships
Morocco are the leading African nation at this moment. At the club level, they are home to the best team in Africa, after Wydad AC defeated Al-Ahly of Egypt in the final of the CAF Champions League last May (AFP)
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Updated 13 January 2023

Morocco’s decision to reverse boycott a major boost for African Nations Championships

Morocco’s decision to reverse boycott a major boost for African Nations Championships
  • It looked like Atlas Lions would miss chance to defend title, but change of heart means World Cup stars kick off campaign on Sunday

It was just last month that Morocco were the deserved toast of the World Cup after reaching the semifinals and pushing then reigning champions France all the way before bowing out.

It was the best ever performance by an Arab or African team. For that month in Qatar, the Atlas Lions were in dreamland, as was much of the region.

There was even some pride at the home of their fierce football rivals Algeria.

Now, however, it is back to the everyday reality of football logistics and politics in Africa.

A major controversy looked likely after Morocco on Thursday withdrew from the African Nations Championships (CHAN), the seventh edition of the tournament that will kick off in Algiers on Friday.

But a change of heart in Rabat means the team will now take part in the competition, starting with a clash against Sudan on Sunday.

Morocco have been drawn in Group C where they will also face Madagascar and Ghana. After winning the last two tournaments in 2018 and 2020, the team is one of the favorites. The competition is reserved for under-23 players who are in action for clubs that belong to the league of their country, meaning the likes of Achraf Hakimi of Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech are ineligible to attend.

For a while, it did look as if no Moroccans would be going there at all.

Relations between Morocco and Algeria had been strained for some time due to a dispute over the Western Sahara region, with the land border between the two countries closed since 1994.

In September 2021, a month after breaking off diplomatic relations, Algeria then closed its airspace to flights from its North African neighbor and that was the reason behind the initial decision by Royal Moroccan Football Federation (FRMF) to pull out. The body had made a request that their team, who have been in a training camp at home for much of the past week, be able to fly directly from the capital, Rabat, into Algeria.

“While the trip of the Moroccan selection from Rabat to Constantine (the northeastern Algerian city that is the main host of Group C games) is organized by the FRMF and the kickoff of CHAN is scheduled for Jan. 13, 2023, meaning in 24 hours, the FRMF notes with regret that obtaining a final authorization of the RAM (Royal Air Maroc) flight from Rabat to Constantine has unfortunately still not been confirmed by CAF (Confederation of African Football),” FRMF said in a statement released on Thursday.

There was no official response from Algeria. Last week Abderrazak Sebgag, the country’s minister of sports, advised that Morocco’s request would be considered and that the CAF would be informed of any decision. “The FAF (Algerian FA) will respond to CAF via official channels. Algeria has its laws, its sovereignty which is above all consideration,” he said.

It did not look good. As often happens when politics enters the field of sports and has a major effect, it is the fans and players who miss out.

Morocco are the leading African nation at this moment. At the club level, they are home to the best team in Africa, after Wydad AC defeated Al-Ahly of Egypt in the final of the CAF Champions League last May. Under the same victorious coach Walid Regragui, the national team then won their World Cup group, defeating Belgium and Canada, and then eliminating Spain and Portugal in the knockout stages.

CHAN does not have the same hold on the popular imagination as the Africa Cup of Nations with its superior star power and color. It is still, however, an important event. Morocco are defending champions and the number one African nation at the moment and would have been missed had they stayed home. Their players would not have got the international experience that will help them develop. The same could be said for those from Ghana, and especially Madagascar and Sudan, who should welcome the chance to face such strong opposition. It is also true for the tournament as a whole. Morocco’s presence improves standards on the pitch and enhances the appeal of the event off it.

Without the Atlas Lions in the competition, Algeria would have been favorites to win in the final on Feb. 4 had Morocco been absent. Les Fennecs kick off the opening game on Friday against Libya at the Nelson Mandela Stadium in Algiers. Libya are one of the few teams to have lifted the trophy along with Tunisia, DR Congo and Morocco.

Their chances will be reduced a little with the presence of Morocco but CHAN 2022 is all the richer for it.


Marseille lose 3-1 to Nice, Monaco triumph to keep pressure on

Marseille lose 3-1 to Nice, Monaco triumph to keep pressure on
Updated 06 February 2023

Marseille lose 3-1 to Nice, Monaco triumph to keep pressure on

Marseille lose 3-1 to Nice, Monaco triumph to keep pressure on
  • Strasbourg beat Montpellier 2-0 at home to go 17th as they try to move out of the relegation zone

PARIS: Second-place Marseille saw their unbeaten run end as they lost 3-1 at home to Nice on Sunday to slip eight points behind French league leaders Paris Saint-Germain.

Marseille’s first league defeat in 10 games means they were only ahead of third-place Lens on goal difference, with in-form Monaco now two points back in fourth spot. Third place secures a spot in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League next season.

Marseille fans got a first look at club-record signing Vitinha, a forward who joined from Portuguese side Braga for €32 million ($34.5 million). Terem Moffi made his debut for eighth-place Nice after joining from Lorient, where he scored 12 goals this season.

Neither made much of an impression in a first half where Nice’s superior pressing game troubled Marseille and prevented them from getting the ball regularly to playmaker Dimitri Payet.

Vitinha’s lack of familiarity with his teammates and the 35-year-old Payet’s tiring legs played into Nice’s high-octane game and the visitors scored twice at the end of the first half.

Striker Gaetan Laborde’s shot was saved by goalkeeper Pau Lopez but forward Sofiane Diop followed up to head in off the post in the 38th minute. Nice’s second goal in the 44th was similar as Lopez pushed away a shot from midfielder Khephren Thuram, and this time Laborde followed up.

Marseille coach Igor Tudor replaced Vitinha and Payet, with Ruslan Malinovskyi and Alexis Sanchez coming on for the second half. Malinovskyi pulled one back in the 60th with his first goal for the club, turning in a cross from left back Jonathan Clauss.

But Algeria forward Billal Brahimi scored his first goal for Nice in the 86th with a fine curling shot.

Meanwhile, Monaco extended their unbeaten run to seven matches with a 2-0 win at Clermont.

Early goals from central defender Guillermo Maripan and striker Breel Embolo allowed Monaco to control the game. Coach Philippe Clement’s side is in good form heading into next Saturday’s home game against PSG.

Maripan used his aerial ability to head in from Caio Henrique’s cross in the third minute. Ten minutes later Japan forward Takumi Minamino won the ball and fed Russia midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, whose pinpoint cross was headed in by Embolo.

Lens managed only a 1-1 draw at Brest. Defender Jonathan Gradit equalized from close range in the 83rd for Lens after Brest goalkeeper Marco Bizot miskicked the ball following a corner. Striker Jeremy Le Douaron put Brest ahead in the 54th when he slid to meet Pierre Lees-Melou’s low cross to the back post.

Strasbourg beat Montpellier 2-0 at home to go 17th as they try to move out of the relegation zone, with striker Habib Diallo scoring both goals. Diallo netted after just 13 seconds from Dimitri Lienard’s cross and grabbed his second on the stroke of halftime, with the home side down to 10 men after Jean-Eudes Aholou’s red card in the 33rd.

Nantes won 2-0 at Corsican side Ajaccio with second-half goals from forward Evann Guessand and midfielder Ludovic Blas.

Rock-bottom Angers finally snapped their 13-game losing streak — a French league record — but could only draw 0-0 at Lorient.

English striker Folarin Balogun failed to add to his league-leading 14 goals but Reims extended its unbeaten run to 14 games with a 0-0 draw at 19th-place Auxerre, who had lost their seven previous games and kept a rare clean sheet.

On Saturday, Lionel Messi’s second-half strike helped a lackluster PSG beat Toulouse 2-1.


Bayern down Wolfsburg 4-2 to reclaim Bundesliga lead

Bayern down Wolfsburg 4-2 to reclaim Bundesliga lead
Updated 06 February 2023

Bayern down Wolfsburg 4-2 to reclaim Bundesliga lead

Bayern down Wolfsburg 4-2 to reclaim Bundesliga lead
  • Wolfsburg pressured from the start but Bayern struck first in the ninth minute when Coman’s cross for Muller evaded everyone and crept inside the far post
  • Second-half goals from Jens Stage and Marvin Ducksch earned Werder Bremen a 2-0 win at Stuttgart

BERLIN: Bayern Munich held on despite Joshua Kimmich’s sending off to beat Wolfsburg 4-2 and return to the top of the Bundesliga on Sunday.

Kimmich was sent off with his second yellow card in the 54th but Wolfsburg was unable to make its dominance count as the visitors delivered a lesson in efficiency.

Kingsley Coman scored twice and Thomas Muller and Jamal Musiala added two more while Bayern also needed goalkeeper Yann Sommer at his best to secure the team’s first Bundesliga win of the year.

“The result was important, the victory matters above all else,” Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann said. “We were too careless after the third goal, not concentrated enough and we allowed a bit too much. But we can be positive looking ahead with these three points.”

It was enough for Bayern to move back to one point clear of Union Berlin.

Wolfsburg had 22 shots at goal compared to the 10-time defending champions’ nine.

Wolfsburg pressured from the start but Bayern struck first in the ninth minute when Coman’s cross for Muller evaded everyone and crept inside the far post.

Coman wasn’t finished. The France winger met João Cancelo’s cross with a volley for 2-0 five minutes later, right after Wolfsburg missed a great opportunity to level.

Muller, making his 427th appearance for Bayern to equal Gerd Muller’s record, celebrated by heading in Kimmich’s free kick for Bayern’s third in only the 19th.

Despite the goals, Wolfsburg remained competitive and deservedly pulled one back through Jakub Kaminski before the break.

The home team pushed for more in the scond half, missing two good chances before Kimmich was sent off with his second yellow card for a foul on Maximilian Arnold.

Wolfsburg enjoyed more possession but failed to make it count before Musiala snatched Bayern’s fourth with a fine individual effort in the 73rd.

Mattias Svanberg pulled another back for Wolfsburg in the 81st and Yannick Gerhardt thought he’d made it 4-3 three minutes later, only to see the goal ruled out through VAR for an apparent foul in the buildup.

Earlier, second-half goals from Jens Stage and Marvin Ducksch earned Werder Bremen a 2-0 win at Stuttgart for the visitors’ second consecutive victory.

It lifted promoted Bremen to eighth while Stuttgart dropped back into the relegation zone. Stuttgart haven’t won a game since mid-November.


Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead
Updated 06 February 2023

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead

Barcelona exploit Madrid’s stumble to open 8-point lead
  • Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league

MADRID: Barcelona took advantage of Real Madrid’s stumble to kick off the second half of the season with another win and enjoy their biggest lead so far at the top of the Spanish league.

After Madrid’s 1-0 loss at Mallorca, Barcelona extended their 10-game winning streak in all competitions with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Sevilla on Sunday to open an eight-point lead over Madrid after 20 of 38 rounds.

It is the biggest lead by any team this season, putting the Catalan club in firm control as they chase their first league title since 2018-19.

“We are having a great season. We have been playing well, not giving many chances for our opponents,” Barcelona defender Jordi Alba said. “It’s eight points. There’s a lot of league left, but it’s a good gap.”

Alba, Gavi and Raphinha scored a goal each in the second half to give Barcelona their fifth straight victory in the league.

The last game Barcelona failed to win was a 1-1 league draw against Espanyol last year.

Sevilla, who got off to a surprisingly awful start to the season, were coming off two straight league wins that had helped it move further away from the relegation zone. They dropped to 16th place with the loss, two points from the drop zone.

Marco Asensio missed a penalty kick in Madrid’s loss at Mallorca in their last match before traveling to Morocco to play at the Club World Cup.

Madrid were depleted by injuries and rested some players ahead of the Club World Cup,

“We already expected a very tough match,” Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We had our chances but couldn’t take advantage of them.”

Ancelotti couldn’t count on several injured starters, including striker Karim Benzema, defender Eder Militao and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who was dropped from the squad at the last minute after getting injured during the warmup. Ancelotti also rested midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who came on in the second half.

Asensio missed a chance to equalize when his 60th-minute penalty kick was saved by Mallorca goalkeeper Pedrag Rajkovic after Madrid forward Vinicius Junior had been fouled. Madrid’s last chance was a header by Antonio Rüdiger that went narrowly wide deep into stoppage time.

The hosts got on the board with an own-goal by Nacho Fernandez, who was replacing Militao in defense. Nacho went for a high cross and deflected the ball into his own net over goalkeeper Andriy Lunin, who started in place of Courtois.

“I hit the ball with my head and unfortunately it went into the top corner,” Nacho said. “It was a complicated match, against a team that is having a good season. It’s a pity that we let three points get away.”

Madrid were coming off a win against Valencia after being held by Real Sociedad. Its opponent in the semifinals of the Club World Cup on Wednesday will be Egyptian club Al Ahly.

It was the second win in three league matches for Mallorca, and the fourth straight at home. They remained midtable with 28 points from 20 matches.

“It’s a good result, moves us further away from the relegation zone,” Mallorca’s Mexican coach Javier Aguirre said. “But there are many matches left, we can’t relax.”

Vinicius was shown a yellow card and will be suspended for Madrid’s next league game against last-place Elche.

Real Sociedad missed a chance to move within three points of Madrid after losing 1-0 to Valladolid at home.

It was the third winless game for the Basque Country club after a nine-game winning streak in all competitions. Sociedad was coming off a 1-0 loss to Barcelona in the quarterfinals of the Copa del Rey, and a 0-0 draw at Madrid in the league.

Newly signed Canadian forward Cyle Larin scored a second-half winner for 13th-place Valladolid, who have won two in a row after five straight losses in all competitions.

Valencia’s struggles continued with a 1-0 defeat at Girona, a result that extended their losing streak to five matches in all competitions.

Valencia have only one win in its last 12 league matches and is sitting just outside the relegation zone.

Girona moved to 11th place.


Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby

Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby
Updated 06 February 2023

Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby

Martinez scores again as Inter beat Milan in Serie A derby
  • It was Martinez’s 12th league goal of the season, putting him four behind leading Serie A goalscorer Victor Osimhen

MILAN: World Cup winner Lautaro Martinez continued his roaring start to the year as he set Inter Milan on their way to a 1-0 victory over AC Milan in the Derby della Madonnina on Sunday.

Martínez has been in fantastic form since helping Argentina win the World Cup in December and he netted his seventh goal in his last eight matches as Inter consolidated second spot in Serie A with a second win over their fierce rival in less than three weeks.

It was Martinez’s 12th league goal of the season, putting him four behind leading Serie A goalscorer Victor Osimhen, who scored another two on Sunday to help runaway leader Napoli win 3-0 at lowly Spezia.

Inter are 13 points behind Napoli and three points above third-place Roma. They are five points above Lazio, Atalanta and Milan, which has slipped to sixth after a woeful start to the year.

The Rossoneri’s winless run extended to seven matches. That streak included elimination from the Italian Cup and a 3-0 loss to Inter in the Super Cup.

Before the derby, Milan had also conceded an unprecedented nine goals in their past two Serie A matches.

With that perhaps playing in their minds, the Rossoneri defended deep from the start and rarely got out of their own half. Milan had to wait almost an hour for its first shot, and that was off target.

Inter almost took the lead in the 10th minute but Martínez headed just wide of the right upright.

Martinez did better in the 34th as he got away from Simon Kjær at the near post to get his head to a corner and it took a deflection off the Milan defender on the way in.

Romelu Lukaku thought he had scored his first league goal since August, late on, but the whistle had already gone for a foul by him on Malick Thiaw.

Martínez also had a goal ruled out for offside.

Osimhen appears to be firing Napoli to the Serie A title as the Nigeria forward netted for the fifth straight league match.

Spezia had defended well against Napoli’s stellar attack but gifted the visitors a penalty less than 10 seconds after the break when defender Arkadiusz Reca was trying to hold off Matteo Politano but didn’t anticipate that the bounce of the ball would take it onto his outstretched arm.

Khvicha Kvaratskhelia converted the penalty, prompting the game to open up.

Osimhen had a goal ruled out in the 62nd for pulling back Mattia Caldara but he headed in his first in the 68th and doubled his tally five minutes later following another assist from Kvaratskhelia.

Spezia remained five points above the relegation zone.

Torino beat Udinese 1-0 to leapfrog their opponent into the Europa Conference League qualifying spot.

Torino are one point above Udinese and Bologna, who won 2-1 at Fiorentina for its first victory in Florence in 13 years.


Ancer closes out unique victory at PIF Saudi International

Golf Saudi CEO Noah Alireza hands Abraham Ancer the trophy. (Golf Saudi)
Golf Saudi CEO Noah Alireza hands Abraham Ancer the trophy. (Golf Saudi)
Updated 05 February 2023

Ancer closes out unique victory at PIF Saudi International

Golf Saudi CEO Noah Alireza hands Abraham Ancer the trophy. (Golf Saudi)
  • Mexican matches 19-under tournament record in first ever pillar to post win
  • American Cameron Young finishes second ahead of Australian Lucas Herbert

JEDDAH: Abraham Ancer completed the first ever pillar to post victory in the $5 million PIF Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers on Sunday, closing with a 68 to card a record equaling 19 under par for the tournament, two ahead of American Cameron Young.

The 31-year-old Mexican conducted a masterclass in front running at the Asian Tour’s season-opening event, adding the title to his WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational win in 2021.

“That was my first ever wire-to-wire win,” said Ancer, whose steadiness at the helm was made possible by a solid, repeatable golf swing and sound putting stroke.

“I just didn’t think about where I was on the leaderboard. I just felt like I just want to do that again. I played really good the first round, and I just felt like I wanted to keep that going.

“I kept telling myself, just imagine if I was in like 20th place and just got to go out there and shoot a low one. It worked out. I stayed in the moment, didn’t really think too much about the previous shots or what was coming after. So, I’m really happy with my frame of mind during these four rounds.”

Ancer led by two from Young at the start of the day and was caught by the American on the seventh. But by the turn he had moved one ahead.

A closely fought contest was expected over the closing holes but Young made a bogey on the par four 13th, where he found the water with his approach shot, then doubled the par four 15th, after chipping short and taking three on the green.

Although Young rallied with birdies on 16 and 18 it was not enough to stop Ancer becoming only the second ever Mexican winner on the Asian Tour, after Carlos Espinosa took the 1995 Canlubang Classic in the Philippines.

Remarkably, despite the windy conditions during the week at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, Ancer dropped just two shots over the four rounds: on the ninth on Sunday and 17th on Friday.

Young, who matched Ancer’s 68 on Sunday, said: “It’s always disappointing but I think I played pretty well, and I’m playing a bunch the next few weeks. I think I’m in a nice place moving forward.

“He (Ancer) played some really nice golf. He just didn’t make really any mistakes. I think he maybe made two bogeys this whole week, and with all the wind blowing as hard as it was, that’s, one, tremendous control of your golf ball, and two, I think just a lot of mental toughness.”

The result was Young’s eighth top-three finish since last year, following a second in The Open and joint third in the PGA Championship.

“I’m proud of all those finishes,” he said. “There’s nothing I’ve thrown away, I don’t think. If one or two of them was a four-shot lead that I didn’t finish off, that’s a bummer, but I’ve been beat a lot. I haven’t thrown any of them away.”

Australian Lucas Herbert carded a 65 on Sunday to finish third, with Thailand’s Sadom Kaewkanjana shooting a 66 to secure fourth spot and cement his place as one of Asia’s rising stars.

It was also a significant week for Arab golfers, with nine taking part in the PIF Saudi International. Saudi Arabia’s Saud Al-Sharif and Faisal Salhab made their professional debuts at the event, where amateurs Issa Abou El-Ela from Egypt and El Mehdi Fakori from Morocco both made the cut.